Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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drakensis
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Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »

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What’s a Bookwyrm to do? Alina knows that she has been reborn, that she was once a world-bestriding legend in a time of desperate danger. But when an ally of her past imperils her new life and new family, she’ll have to scrape together her former power and magic if she wants to save them. Starting with talking, toddling and the dark art of the potty.

Ascending Air

Somewhere between light that hurt my eyes and what seemed like an unending hunger, I lost myself in dreams.

The Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water was perhaps the most dangerous remaining of that select company who deemed themselves the lords over death itself. Ghosts, ancient and potent. Once they had been among the greatest… and perhaps the vilest… of the Exalted. In death they were something much worse.

His fleets had scoured the seas around Onyx for a thousand miles, erasing the living save for those willing to become slaves to the dead. Leviathan himself had risen to do battle and I had saluted the mighty Chosen of Luna for his last stand… but it had been his last stand.

While much of that fleet was scattered, one flotilla stood guard in the waters around the Bodhisattva’s stronghold and on the decks of their flagship I duelled against Moray Darktide.

The ship was sinking, carrying the crew of corpses back to what should have been their resting place all along. The renegade’s short, heavy daiklave clashed with my dire lance. He was mighty, I will give him that: a privateer of Skullstone turned Dawn Caste, chosen by the Unconquered Sun only to place his awesome potential at the disposal of one of our worst enemies.

I blame the parents… in the sense that the Most High really should have paid more attention to who he was exalting.

Moray paused to take breath upon his quarterdeck. “You’re skilled, Bookwyrm. Everything I have heard and more.

I shrugged and gave him a bitter smile. “I hear a ‘but’.”

He drew a deep breath. “Not going to try to reason me? Convince me that I made the wrong choice?”

“You’ve had a hundred years to reconsider. If that hasn’t persuaded you, nothing I say will.”

The Solar nodded. “And the same for you. My master’s cause is inevitable.”

I twirled my spear, cutting away what was left of the rigging. “Yeah yeah. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Come along, you would-be deathknight. Let’s see if he spares you a dark exaltation when I’m done carving the Sun’s out of you.”

He laughed, for he had wounded me four times so far and his supernatural skill with a sword was such that I had not managed the same. And then he came at me, sword ablaze.

I didn’t try to dodge or parry - although I had managed both a thousand times for every time his soulsteel blade had touched me. Instead I went for him, using the length of my spear.

My every blow was perfect, a deadly invocation of power that was forbidden by heaven. If the halls in which fate was meted out and from which auditors were dispatched to enforce heaven’s writ were not currently on fire, I might be in trouble.

His every parry was also perfect, supernatural grace and precision such as only the mightiest of the Most High’s champions can show. Such a duel has rarely been seen.

And yet, I had an advantage, for I have sparred with and fought against his kind before.

He parried six times, like the master swordsman that he was, in the time it took for my heart to beat twice.

But in that same brief interval, I had struck ten times.

Darktide hit the deck behind me once, twice, thrice and then the fourth and fifth parts of him a moment later.

If the Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water cared in any manner about Moray Darktide’s death, then I saw no sign of it. Perhaps the ghost would rise to serve the Deathlord in death as he had in life, but that was no longer my concern. A subtle whisper snatched away the Solar’s imperishable shard and I did not look for that which had distorted the designs of the Great Maker.

Since the death of Urwl in the Primordial War, the greatest of all the Elemental Dragons of Earth - all the Elemental Dragons in fact - was the Kukla. His power rivalled the Celestial Incarnae, and his madness the worst of the curse-ridden Solar god-kings of the First Age. Eons ago he had been confined by water and fire, bound into an underground volcano deep beneath the Western Ocean.

The charm I’d used to slay the renegade Solar invoked him, challenged bindings laid by one of the Incarna and by Gaia, the Mother of Creation. Twelve locks bound it, each guarded by an Elemental who could have ruled an entire Court of their kind. Yet these were mostly to keep others from reaching him and disturbing his slumber. The true security was that the greatest of all the Incarnae had summoned and bound the Kukla to sleep until he was called for. For the final days of Creation, when armageddon would rage and the Kukla’s final dance would herald birth and rebirth.

So it was prophesied, anyway.

To invoke the Kukla was to risk breaking that sleep. Thus, my art was a sin, a deed most dire. A bell whose every chime had a good chance of waking him.

I’d just used it repeatedly, practically upon his doorstep.

The sea to the west bulged upwards, a mountain of water rising upwards as something more inevitable than even death arose.

“Wakey wakey,” I murmured and cast aside my material form as the rising ocean smashed what was left of the warship beneath me. Doing so drained me of my last reserves of essence, all but that bound to my panoply, but that was fine. I didn’t need it now, or at least, no more than the comparative trickle I could draw from the hearthstones I carried. In time, a few hours, I would be fully replenished. I might even have that time!

Upon the isle, the living screamed either in despair or anticipation, the dead bureaucrats abandoned their brushes to stare up at something to end even their nigh immortal ennui.

Tens of miles high, a mountain of water to rival even the greatest mountain in all Creation. Were the sun’s chariot not forever dimmed, its shadow might have reached the continent to our east.

And then the Kukla burst from it, twelve legs striking clouds from the sky, beard and horns storms in their own right.

An inconceivable mass of waters crashed down beneath it, forming a tsunami that would rush across Creation before us.

Onyx vanished beneath the waves without even a whisper, the rest of the island an instant later. I suspected the rest of the archipelago would fare no better.

And then the two great eyes of the Kukla focused on the irritant that had presumed to draw its wrath.

In spirit, I am a dragon. Ivory of scale, sapphire of eyes, copper of whisker. A dragon of the earth, like the Kukla, but smaller and less grand in every way. It’s eyes themselves seemed larger than my entire body.

I offered an ancient and profane gesture in greeting and fled, racing the waves as they thundered away from the ruins of what had once been a civilisation of living and dead co-existing in something approaching harmony.

The sky seemed to split behind me as the Kukla roared and gave chase.

I had laughed at that thought, for black humour was all that was left when the flames of two suns – gold and green – guttered and died together. Now it was a far more immediate and menacing prospect. Not merely of death, but of failure.

I had agreed - boasted even - that I would dance the razor’s edge, battling those who could not be defeated, calling up that which I could not put down and throw defiance into the face of all reason and sanity.

I felt more alive than I ever had before. Each moment felt infinitely precious.

I hurtled towards the birthing place of the sun, forerunner of a force of destruction such as Creation had never known since the War of Bronze and Gold. And behind that wave, maw wide with appetite to devour my most impudent self, came the Kukla.

The islands of the west disappeared behind us, consumed by what I had unleashed.

A day later, perhaps? Time had no meaning when twin suns had died next to each other, emerald and gold united briefly in one cause for the first time since the Exalted first arose, only to gutter and perish. The chariot that flew above even us was increasingly erratic.

Icebergs were swept up in the tsunami that I preceded. To the south I saw the coastal islands were devoured - only Ratjul large enough for anyone to survive. It shielded somewhat of the cost beyond it - ruined cities of the Maker’s folk, fought over by the horde of living and dead cannibal-islanders who had resented deeply that their ancient raiding preserves had been held securely by anyone.

Further away, no doubt the Blessed Isle and the Slave Coast that faced it were being similarly hammered. I saw the vast ice mass that covered much of the mouth of the White Sea shatter like glass, merely adding to the wave as it swept onwards.

Yet the greater ice sheet to the north survived, though cracked and torn for hundreds of miles inland by that massive blow.

And there, far from the ocean, Kukla still upon my heels, I found the ruined city of Tchoto-kili, one of so many lost to the various disasters that had battered the North - perhaps worse than anywhere else in Creation - over the millennia. I had added one last insult to that roster, I thought.

But in the city, there was a gate that I knew well. I descended at a frantic pace and dived through it, the great panels swinging obediently open for me.

There was no rational way for the mountainous Kukla to follow me through that portal, but it did so anyway.

All was according to the ‘keikaku’. Even those parts that my comrades could not know until it was too late.

Heaven spread before us, the ancient and vast city of Yu-Shan.

It had been the palatial estate of the Primordials, then the capital of the Celestial Pantheon. Ancient and mighty, corrupt and glorious, first… and now fallen.

Memories of the city overwhelm me, leaving me plunging back and forth in my recollections. Was it later or earlier that I saw Yurgen Kaneko fall at last, my rival and my lieutenant, the old man who had smiled at the overturning of traditions that saw a Chosen of the Unconquered serve a mere son of Urwl. The Salient of the Unconquered Sun lay in ruins, one of the mightiest strongholds in Heaven laid waste by the armies that stormed in through gateways writ by divine power and those carved by those who would drag us all to oblivion.

It was before this, I think.

Yes, I remember now. I remember the heavens violated by death and those never born and never fully dead haunted its streets, re-enacting the lives they had led and trapping others in nightmares. The portals were locked open and hosts of demons, living and dead, streamed through them.

It was the death of everything. A demand for quietus, for eternal peace, and for hateful revenge on a world that had turned upon its creators, worshippers who had cast down those they were wrought to idolise.

And yet even those fighting to devour, to survive, to spite the fate that seemed unavoidable, paused in their battles to stare upwards as the Kukla and I made our entry. And their screams grew ten-fold as the twelve-legged dragon set foot where once, as a lesser being, he had once been made welcome.

Now he carved a path of annihilation through what had once been merely destruction.

The office of bestowed power was a ruin, open to the sky with its cabinets torn open and looted, but the tools they had once held and the custodian were elsewhere now. Nothing but vapour was left when we passed it by.

A thousand streets, a million palaces. Armies of the dead, legions of the living - damned and mortal fighting side-by-side in perhaps that one cause that could have wed them together.

Their defiance warmed me, but I knew that ultimately it amounted to nothing but spitting into the face of futility.

When these battles ended, there would be nothing left.

Yu-Shan would crumble, plunged into the Well of Oblivion, dragging with it Creation. Malfeas was already undone and what it would mean for the Sea of Chaos neither I nor any of my Circle could calculate.

No, we had reached the last moments before the final nadir and only death would remain...

There would be nothing.

Save a faint sliver of hope that I hid in my heart, unspoken.

We all have our gifts. Mine was time.

Here was a working, a plan that had been calculated to the nth degree. My baiting of the Kukla, guiding its rampage to distract and delight those who dreamed of destruction…

For the most part, they expected me to join them. A few knew that some laws are inflexible and that the rule of sacrifice is immutable. Only the sorcerers knew that in this case, our code – do not die – could not be followed.

I had not confided to them that I was a cheating cheater who would cheat if he could. If they didn’t know me that well.

The Kukla screamed in elemental hunger and somewhere inside me, a count crept upwards.

Five poles and seven scales, plucked away from the very hide of the beast that craved my death. Nigh a thousand shards of power to guard it. My children by the ten thousand to guide them.

And hidden citadels, dragged by the children of fate to where the rest would make a new world for those hidden within.

The heart of the eternal city, the Jade Pleasure Dome, reared miles into the sky. It almost rivalled the Kukla for size and hordes fought around it, less as organised bodies and more in fanatical desire to possess and enjoy the pleasures within for whatever little time remained to them.

They at least were mostly spared for their last nihilistic orgies and games as I led the Kukla south, the gigantic dragon gaining on me though I was moving so fast that even its roars and tirades could barely catch me.

I saw a plaza of gold and crimson floor, one that I had seen bedecked for festivals and triumphs. From the edge of heaven to its heart I had raced, for here were the ‘front gates’, the portals leading out to the Blessed Isle. Thirteen arches surrounded the plaza, twelve for the known exits and the last, the Calibration Gate locked open, control of it usurped to allow the first invasion force in.

The plaza had been gold alone before the bloodbath as the Aerial Legion of the heavens defended Yu Shan with every power at their command. They had turned the space into a killing ground and, without treason, they might even have won.

The war had moved on, the plaza deserted.

I chose one of the other gates and made my exit. The sounds behind me suggested that there wouldn’t be much left of the bloodied stones in a moment.

I entered the skies above Creation, miles high as I burst away from the summit of Mount Meru.

A black dragon awaited me, coiled and lurking like betrayal. If it wasn’t for the Kukla behind me, I might have been impressed by its size and power. Although probably not. I was a little jaded when it came to such matters.

“I know,” I greeted him. “It is your nature.”

He grinned at me in delight and despair, springing up to join me. “My congratulations, were I to permit it, you might even escape through the door that has opened for you. However, I have in mind to -”

I laughed. “O first and foremost in the breaking of oaths, I am about to break faith with my Circle.”

The Primordial drew up, seeming affronted. And then it cackled wildly and slowed down, sparing me.

And in so doing, doomed himself.

An instant later, the Kukla’s jaws closed upon the Ebon Dragon, ground down upon him with fangs to dwarf a war galley and then flung his body aside. Living or dead, I know not. I count him amused though. Treachery, deception and betrayal

Someone had to close the door behind my comrades. Someone had to initiate the orgy of apocalypse that would convince the damned lords of the underworld that all had perished with them. And that someone must not escape or it would give the game away. The Ebon Dragon had understood that, had planned to betray us all… and to complete our plan.

I had understood it too, and that I - accounted the most loyal and steadfast of men - would do so had entertained the arch traitor enough that he would allow me to play this out. He might even on some level admired that I’d timed to lure him into the reach of my pursuer.

I screamed out into the sky, ascending to the heights of the night. The Kukla tore out of the ruined gates and the world roared as its shadows twisted at the essence flows that lay beneath us.

Nothing in all Creation can destroy like the Kukla.

But in the hundred years I have been Exalted, there has never been anyone who could cheat fate like the Bookwyrm. There might, just might, be a way out. A way to join them in that mere pocket of Creation that we had divided from the main, a lifeboat as it were, for what would remain.

Nothing is as vital to the existence of our world than the flows of essence that stream from the heights of Meru to the mouth of the river to our east.

Let the light of the sun cast the Kukla’s shadow upon those flows…

I clawed upwards, slowing as it grew harder and harder to gain purchase upon the winds beneath the dome of heaven. The Kukla’s hot breath came at my tail.

Every part of me ached with pain. How long had I done this? Time beyond measuring, for the count of hours was gone.

And the suns were dead. What then, was I waiting for? Or rather, for whom.

Creation, it is said, is but one of her many souls. She is mother to us all.

And thus, as an apocalypse raged beneath us, all mankind’s brightest gone, I spat out the coin she had entrusted to me so long ago.

“Gaia,” I croaked. My anima flared around me, a brilliant white that stretched a thousand yards away. “Witness me!”

And in my last moment…

For one brief moment…

A new sun was born to cast a shadow…

Creation broke around us and...

Every.

Single.

Thing.

Ended.

Is it any surprise that I screamed and howled both before and after I woke?

I hungered. I wept. I rejoiced and I despaired.

Some eternity later my eyes blinked as wakefulness returned. “Uaaa,” I exclaimed.

Eloquent, I know. I have something of a way with words.

A giant lifted me and I felt dizzy for a moment before the ascent became a soothing rocking motion. I was warm, I was… well hungry enough to eat but not so ravenous that I must. There was a humiliating moment of someone patting at my nether and a sigh of relief that there was no moistness there.

She (I could tell) carried me out of the sunlight and cradled me with soothing noises that distracted my attention from thought and left me unfocused.

I parted my lips, smiled and yawned. Sleep beckoned. Would I dream again of the past?

So be it. The fact I could dream meant I lived. The fact I lived meant I had cheated both the designs of the spirits and of my well-meaning friends. Oh, and that I’d saved enough for there to be a new world to live in.

I’d be sure to rub that in their faces once I found them.

I admit, I had rather planned to skip the infant years. Being a baby had not been part of my calculations. No, I’d figured on skipping to the good stuff. But I didn’t need to tell them that. No, whatever I’d accomplished, that was the plan all along.

Don’t tell them that, okay?

In hindsight, I may not have been terribly coherent with my previous explanation. Please excuse me, reincarnation is not an exact science.

Well, actually, reincarnation is a fairly well regulated and designed process. It’s just… well, it’s been a little bit broken for a few thousand years and the end of the world and all its attendant processes including but not limited to the reincarnation human souls can be a bit disruptive. And I was kind of trying to force an exploit through it that it really wasn’t designed for.

So… some errors may be allowed for, surely. It’s not the sort of thing that one can experiment with repeatedly – at least unless you’re going to experiment on other’s souls, which is unethical in the extreme.

The simple fact that I remembered who I was is cause for a pat on the back. I would have done that myself but honestly, my coordination wasn’t up to it as I lay in a cradle. Or up to much of anything, really. I don’t recall my earliest years in my last life all that well, and I don’t tend to be all that involved in the infant years of my own offspring, but it seems that baby muscles are approximately as effective as wet noodles until they get some exercise in to build them up.

And yes, I was something of a distant father. There were reasons, so I feel I was justified in that, but it’s certainly nothing to be proud of. I cared, in my way, and I have made my peace with my failings over the years. Most of my children seem to forgive me, and those who do not… well, they have the right not to.

I wonder if any of them are still alive? It would be somewhat ironic if I were my own descendant in this life.

Also, more or less inevitable, had things gone entirely to plan, but they evidently had not.

Permit me to lecture a moment upon certain aspects of Exaltation. The most famous and storied are of course, the bestowed Exaltations – the celestials, in other words. Souls chosen and favoured by one of the Celestial Incarna or at least by criteria they set up. In the fullness of time and at some fateful moment, they receive a grant of power that elevates them above most of humanity in some ways. Not including morality or sanity, unfortunately, but at least they’re no longer cursed to be impaired in that respect.

(The Neverborn were rather upset about their curse being lifted, but they did kill almost all of us so let’s call that a wash.)

When the bearer of bestowed power dies, their shard which contains the power, returns to the celestial spirit who oversees such matters, until the power is given to another. Along with the power come some memories of the more puissant of the former bearers, essentially something of a tutorial on how to use that power. Any biases and prejudices carried over were an undocumented feature but a feature, not a flaw. Most died fighting demons, and the Incarnae wanted their Exalted to fight demons, so a dislike for demons is desirable.

I, on the other hand, am a recipient of inherited power. Terrestrial Exaltation, by its nature, passes through the bloodline. The potential to share in that power is passed to one’s children – which is one reason I have so many children. It is cold-blooded, but Creation needed protectors and I had at the time an unrivalled ability to sire such protectors.

I had still wept for those of my children who had died before me.

I wept again as I thought of my dead children, to the distraction of those caring for me in this state. My hearing was getting better and I was fairly sure one of the women was my mother. I smiled at her as thanks for her wiping my face and consoling me. The local dialect was close to several I had spoken before, but not entirely the same.

Yawn. I rested my head upon her shoulder and…

Sometime later I woke, again in my cradle. Staying awake for any length of time was also difficult for me as a baby, which I had more or less expected. I do have some experience with children, just not as much as I feel I ought.

Yes, anyway. Inherited power. There was no shard of power for us. It was in our blood, thus ‘Dragon-Blooded’. Given the prevalence of my descendants among those escaping to the new world we sought to create from the wreckage of Creation, there was a very good chance that if I was reborn as a terrestrial exalt that I would be at least distantly descended from myself.

If, of course, I was going to exalt in this life. Which was an open question.

My plan had been to form a pseudo-shard of power with my soul; and have it seek out someone destined to receive an inherited exaltation. They would therefore receive a measure of my power and my memories – a gift to the future. Their own soul and memories would dominate, naturally – I had no intention of attempting to usurp someone else’s life. Just to provide some guidance where it might be needed and perhaps do some gloating from the grave.

Petty, I know, but I’m like that sometimes. Anyway, matters clearly hadn’t gone to plan and instead my soul had clearly entered the normal reincarnation process so I’d be starting from scratch. At least I had my own body, unimpressive as it might be at the moment, which was more than I had expected. On the other hand, there was no assurance that this life was destined to receive exaltation.

There was nothing I could do about that, really. Fate can be cheated, but destiny is another thing entirely. But a new life beckoned and I didn’t seem to be off to a bad start.

All I could see at the time was the cradle and the ceiling above it. I could hear other children and they sometimes passed my field of vision, so I guessed I was being raised in some sort of communal creche. The room wasn’t very fancy, but it was better than some peasant hut so I wasn’t in some primitive backwater. Hopefully whatever the new world was, there were few of those. Poverty isn’t entirely eradicable in my experience, but it can be kept to a bare minimum and some sort of standards.

My mother seemed healthy, if perhaps a little tired. I regretted that I might be adding to that by waking in the nights but she wasn’t the only person caring for the children so I doubt I was all that much to blame. What I wasn’t sure was whether this was an extended family or perhaps just a community that shared the responsibility of caring for their children.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter. When I cared for my own children, it was generally in mixed creches shared with my colleagues and comrades’ families. I had a warm sensation at the thought that the custom might have continued into…

Dammit, that warm sensation was something else entirely.

I waved my hands as much as I could for attention, but finally had to settle for wailing until someone picked me up and discovered I’d soaked my nappy.

Bladder control, I miss you so very much. Isn’t there some sort of exercise I can do to get you back sooner?

Long before I had managed that matter, other matters changed.

One morning – I think it was a morning unless I’d slept most of a day and it was late afternoon – my mother plucked me out of my cradle and changed my nappy. I wasn’t sure why – I hadn’t soiled it yet. I’d grown more familiar with the local dialect though, enough to be sure her name was Alina and be more confident that she was my mother.

I was certainly referred to as her child by some of the other adults but that could have meant she’d adopted me or something. She might be an aunt who’d taken me in after my birth mother died, for example. I was aware I was probably overthinking the matter, but I had plenty of time and little else to do. Also, no one sat down and provided a useful degree of exposition to confirm details of my family background.

Not that they didn’t talk to me… at me, rather. But no one expects babies to understand so why explain anything? I was most amused by the oldest caretaker, who mostly minded us at night. Medra had a sweet and kindly tone, but tended to ramble on with a stream of consciousness that included the fact that she thought I was a rather ugly baby with pale and unhealthy skin. Also, my hair – which had initially fallen out to my alarm – was growing back in far too thick. At least I had round and pinchable cheeks.

She did pinch at them very delicately so I allowed that. Just little tickles, really. I don’t think she actually disliked me, she just didn’t see any need to filter what she said to someone that wouldn’t understand and was keeping her up all night.

Fair enough. I rewarded her with smiles and giggles, the only currency I had on offer.

In addition to my fresh nappy, I was – for the first time – dressed in more than some blankets or a swaddling cloth. Not that it was a huge improvement, since what I was dropped into was basically a sack with arms. The only openings were for my head and hands, leaving my legs kicking in the bottom of the sack. The entire thing was slightly too large for me, so once the draw-string cuffs were secured snugly around my wrists the arms were effectively ‘puffed up’ around my own arms, and the collar was too wide even when it was buttoned up.

Still, it was a novel garment to me at the time and I would have liked to try putting my arms through the sleeves myself – an experiment in dressing myself! – but my mother had a worried air so I just relaxed and let her handle that, for which I was rewarded with a kiss on the brow and a reminder that I was a good girl.

Yes, a girl. It wasn’t a surprise – I’d figured that out after the first few times I got wiped down there. I might not have the neck strength yet to examine down there, but there had been a lack of any dangly bit down below so… oh well.

There might be some karmic judgement involved that the Bookwyrm, infamous for fathering ten thousand children on ten thousand women, would be the one bearing any children this time. (It wasn’t that many children, or that many women. You know how rumours can get. If I counted my grandchildren, then it would be more accurate).

It wasn’t all that distressing a discovery, really. Women, you see, are people too. I realise this may shock some people, but it’s true. I even have female friends in addition to the mothers of my children.

And if I really needed to address the reproductive side of things from a male side (or got sick of sitting down to empty my bladder), there were magical options.

Having dressed me, mother carried me out of the creche room where I’d spent all this life so far. I’d have loved to look around but even just the view from her arms was quite exciting after weeks or months confined to just one room – and most of the time to just one small part of it.

What I saw was an enclosed courtyard formed by two L-shaped buildings. Gates sealed off the two corners between the buildings, although they were open at the moment, and there was grass and a tree – chestnut I think – at one end of the yard. The other end was taken up by posts supporting laundry lines (they were in use so I didn’t have to guess at the function). The buildings seemed to be timber and plaster, with broad porches along the courtyard side. I saw notches that presumably held panels to enclose the porches during harsh weather but today didn’t seem to be such a day.

“Is he here yet?” mother asked Medra, who was standing near one of the open gates.

“Not yet,” the old woman told her. She reached out and pinched my cheeks. “Let’s get some colour in those cheeks of yours, little one. It’ll make you look less unhealthy.”

“There’s nothing unhealthy about her.” Mother pulled her away, sounding worried. “She’s a very robust little girl.”

“You can never tell with babies.” Medra sounded tranquil and even happy about that. I gathered it was just her way, but Alina flinched defensively. “I can see her veins beneath her skin.”

“She’s naturally pale and she’s not been outside much yet. It’s normal and she’ll grow out.”

Rather than taking the argument further – it was rather concerning if Medra, who was older and presumably more experienced, thought I might have health concerns – the old woman stiffened at a sound. “Ah, here he comes.”

Mother’s arms tightened a little more and she backed up a step, watching the gateway. Sure enough, half a dozen men entered, all dressed rather better than mother or Medra.

For most of them it was a matter of detail, for they wore the same long tunics and pants that seemed ubiquitous among the people I’d seen so far - save for children who often didn’t have the pants. But these clothes were better made, with additional embroidery and the sort of cut that told an educated eye that these had been tailored specifically for them, rather than adjusted from a few fairly standard sizes.

And the one who dominated the group effortlessly was even more striking, with long blue-black hair tied into a partial bun and the rest forming a long tail behind him. It was more blue than black, an unusual colour for one of entirely human heritage. His clothes were the finest and he wore an open-fronted robe over his tunic, rich silk lining visible and even more costly fur at the collar and cuffs.

Most striking all were the swords. A long, sturdy baldric supported a straight blade at one hip – as the scabbard as long as a man’s arm and the guard of blue jadesteel, suggesting the blade might be the same. A second, far longer sword with an elegant curve to it, was supported across his back; and while the hilt glittered with jewels and silver, I suspected that it too was jadesteel.

Daiklaves. The swords of Exalted, forged as much of magic as steel.

This man was Exalted, almost certainly Dragon-Blooded of the Air-aspect. His garments were blue, the colour associated with that element, and he had a mon – the traditional badge of a Dragon-Blooded family or gentes - emblazoned over his heart although from this angle I couldn’t see it clearly. Particularly as I was bobbed up and down by my mother curtseying.

“Exalted lord,” she offered in a humble greeting. Unencumbered by me, Medra clasped her hands in salute as she too offered obeisance.

He looked at mother, then at me. “I see, Alina. So, this is your child?” Huh. That wasn’t the local dialect, it was High Realm – a derivative of Old Realm used by the upper crust of the Blessed Isle. Not unlikely to have survived as a distinction, but not what I’d have expected.

“Yes, lord.” Mother held me out for him to inspect more closely, which gave me a look at him in return. The badge was a triangle inside a circle, differenced slightly from those I’d seen before. Last time I’d seen a mon (a symbol representing a family) looking like this it was born by members of Gens Tepet, a great house sworn to the Scarlet Empress and her dynasty. They had been good allies in those last times of Creation, it would please me if this man was a sign that they lived on.

His own inspection was curious, but fastidious, with his hands clasped behind him and no attempt to take hold of me himself. “I see that the rumours are correct. She has the stamp of a dragon already.”

Did I!? Well that was promising!

“I… would not wish…” Mother stammered.

“No, no. Quite right,” he added with a condescending smile. “You are an educated woman, Alina, so you will be aware it would be presumptuous to assume that the blood will flower. We may safely assume that the child has a strong touch of the blood, but that is still no certainty.”

He was right. The children of powerful Dragon-Blooded may show some of the physical traits of their supernatural parents but that alone is no guarantee of exaltation. Still, it was a very good sign. Even if I didn’t exalt, chances were good that

“Her father would be…”

Mother pulled me back against herself and looked down at me. “I was… seduced by one of your guests, lord.” The hesitation did not escape me. “Lord Ragara Nova is the only man whose company I… enjoyed at the dates on which my daughter has been conceived.”

The man gestured dismissively. “Nonsense, my dear Alina. The aftermath of your pregnancy has doubtless clouded your recollection of some trysts we enjoyed in the spring.”

“I…”

Medra coughed. “Of course, my lord. Alina merely did not want to raise matters that could introduce discord between yourself and your lady wife.”

The Dragon-Blood turned his gaze upon her and I shivered for a second in my mother’s arms. Then he smiled coldly. “Such loyalty,” he murmured. Extending one hand he cupped mother’s head from behind and kissed her dispassionately upon the brow. I got a rather closer look at his chest than I really wanted and had to resist the urge to spit on his tunic.

“I shall acknowledge and adopt the child,” the Tepet declared. “I must set a good example to my sons and grandsons. Let there be no further discussion of Ragara Nova being the father. Our child shall grow up in the nursery of my household and be reared to all the advantages of her paternal ancestry.”

Mother hesitated and then curtseyed again. “May I ask the honour of granting her my name to take with her into her auspicious life, my lord?”

He inclined his head. “You understand then.”

“I… am not unfamiliar with such cases as have been mentioned in your correspondence.”

“It is indeed best that she not suffer any stigma from having a servant as her mother,” he agreed.

What? What!

If he’d still been in range, I would have spat on him for sure. Maybe even gummed him if a finger came in reach!

Stigma! You snobby ass! I waved my arms as best I could. If my fingers had cooperated then certain ancient gestures of contempt would have been directed towards him. Mother jiggled me up and down a little in an attempt to calm me.

What the hell sort of society did this world have? Who’d brought that sort of nonsense in? We never tolerated it in Methelan or Denandsor!

“I believe that my household’s affairs in the city would benefit from direct oversight of a dedicated manager,” the man continued smoothly. “You have long deserved such advancement and the increased salary. It pleases me to have found a suitable avenue to reward you, and as the mother of my child there will be an additional stipend.”

Alina managed a “Thank you,” that didn’t sound bitter as much as resigned. “You do me great honour.”

“You have given me a gift,” the man replied blandly. “Perhaps a very great gift indeed. And our daughter Alina will have the best of lives. Surely you will be rewarded for this in the next life, but I shall do what I can in this one.”

Medra was the one who carried me out of the creche the next time I left it. After the Tepet left, mother had sat with me under the tree for a long while, playing with my little fingers – counting and recounting them as if one might go missing – and stroking my hair. I hugged her as best I could and, on the one opportunity given, I gave her cheek a soft baby kiss.

What else could I do? I couldn’t toddle after her when she was sent away - as she evidently was being, even if it came with what sounded like a career advancement. For that matter I couldn’t crawl after her either.

Ghosts and demons! I couldn’t even roll myself over. And wouldn’t that be a ridiculous sight, a baby rolling over and over down a road after a woman?

Eventually I tired myself out, which really didn’t take much in my current state. When I was nodding away, Alina carried me back to the creche and… I didn’t see her when I woke up. I realised, as I stared up at that humble ceiling, that I might never see her again.

It hit surprisingly hard. I’d only known her for a few weeks and out of everyone I’d known in my previous life, I could think of any number of people I’d spent more time with. I am not noted for being excessively sentimental. Kind, certainly, and courteous when the time suits it. Cruelty is no virtue. But I had become fond of her surprisingly fast. Perhaps, as a baby, I knew my mother by instinct.

Whatever the reason, I was notably tetchy the next day and managed enough control of my limbs to bat irritably at the bottle of warm milk that Medra tried to feed me from. Not enough to break it, even by knocking it from her hand on the floor – her grip was far

“Temper temper,” she chided me in a pleasant voice and let me wait it out before I gave in and accepted being fed.

“It’s as if she knows she’s one of the lord’s family now,” one of the other carers muttered.

Medra arched one eyebrow in a reproving manner. “She’s wise enough even this young to know someone is gone. And you should hope the little one doesn’t recall you being this sour if you meet her again.”

“She’s just a baby.”

“Just the lord’s baby now.” Medra wiped my face from where some milk had spilled despite my best efforts and wriggled one finger in front of me. “Little Alina’s aware enough of what’s around her. Who knows what she hears and makes of it?”

“Heh, well she can’t speak yet. She won’t understand.”

“Words, no. But tone. You always knew someone’s mood when you were her age, little Caitri. I remember that, from when you were in a cradle in this very room.”

The younger woman shut up sharply at that rejoinder.

Medra dressed me this time before we left. It was a finer garment than the sack-with-arms I’d been in last time, I guessed that it had been sent by the Lord’s family. It would not be proper for their new adoptee to be dressed like a servant or some such nonsense.

Still, it was sturdy and practical for a child to wear – and fitted me better if we’re being honest. It was a single garment with proper legs ending in little booties for my little footies. The cloth was sturdy and suitable for being cleaned easily, but the front had been embroidered in blue patterns and there was lace around the collar and the wrists, which felt soft to my fingers.

Noticing me rubbing at the lace, the old woman laughed lightly. “You’re moving up in the world, little Alina. You should start getting used to the finer things in life.”

Finer things? I could do better than this. “Ua!” Well, I could have done better than this, back when my fingers were more than an inch long and had some sort of grip.

She laughed at the look on my face and then picked up a little bonnet with more lace on it. I did my best to convey ‘you have got to be kidding’ with my expression. Medra laughed again, so she might have understood, but she pulled it over my head anyway and knotted it under my little chin.

I clawed at it with my tiny fingers, but I couldn’t get a good grip to pull the strap past me.

“Oh, you don’t like it, eh?” she told me, scooping me up from the cradle. “Well too bad, little Alina. You should have worn it last time but his lordship wouldn’t have been able to get as good a look at you.”

“Wa!”

“It’s warm out, we need to protect you from sunstroke.” Medra pinched my cheek. “As pale as you are, you might sunburn and then you’d be a real cranky little miss.”

Sunburn. Oh. I was a mortal now. That sort of thing just wasn’t an issue for Exalted, but back before I’d exalted, I’d had sunburns and they’d been pretty miserable. I didn’t really want that when I couldn’t scratch or even explain I needed some salve. And the peeling… “Ooo.” I burbled compliantly.

“Ha-ha, it’s as if you understand.” The old woman jogged me up and down in her arms. (I say old, but I mean mortally. She was maybe fifty or sixty? It was probable the Tepet jerk was much older than she was, maybe even twice as much. Hopefully whoever the local leaders were, someone would remind him that he wasn’t part of a Dynastic house anymore and our realm was considerably more egalitarian than the moribund one the Scarlet Empress had built around herself.

With the happy thought of him getting his comeuppance, I let her slide me into some straps and then put her own arms through the loops. Much to my disappointment, this left me resting face first against her apron. I could feel one of her shoulder bones pressing my cheek through the high collared apron - I assume she didn’t want me dribbling on the clothes beneath.

“There we go,” Medra assured me, patting the top of the bonnet. “It’s a while since I carried a child like this but you don’t weigh anything worth mentioning.

Of course I don’t, I’m only a season or so old! It’s a bit extreme as a weight-loss programme though.

Since I wasn’t going to get much of a view, I closed my eyes for a moment, resting against her warm apron…

With a start I woke up. Had I drifted off again?

I had, I realised as the strapping was carefully taken off me. “There you go, how did she like being carried around?” asked someone.

Medra cradled me so I could see around. “Oh, Alina was fine, she slept the entire way.” Why was she so smug about that?

We were in a room not all that dissimilar from that I was used to – cribs and cots of various sizes, a thick carpet and some well-padded leather seats along the side of the room. As Medra turned, looking around for herself, I saw cupboards and a door leading through to what was probably a small kitchen and storeroom.

There were toys heaped in an open chest but no one was playing with them at the moment. The air was warm and still, I heard someone snoring softly.

“It’ll be nice to have another well-behaved child,” the other woman decided. She kept her voice low, perhaps not wanting to wake whoever was sleeping. “Some of the others are a little needy.”

Medra nodded and turned to lay me down in the nearest cot. It was smaller than I was used to – not that it made much difference at my size. I could stretch out my arms and just barely touch either side with my fingers, a feat just barely within my current coordination so I did just that. “Uaaaa?”

“There there,” she soothed me, and rubbed my cheek. “Hmm, you’re not too warm. That’s good.”

I clawed at the bonnet strap again, hoping that she’d get the hint. Unfortunately, she turned away to her companion. “I gather I’ll be helping to mind the nursery at night?”

“Yes. We wouldn’t normally put the newest member of the nursery staff on the night shift, but I gather that you have experience.” She looked down at me. “I see, she does have pale skin.” Reaching down the woman ran a measuring finger down my chin. Her touch was a little chill and I pulled my face away from her finger as best I could.

That didn’t seem to bother her and she ushered Medra aside to another cot. “There are three other children here at the moment. The twins are best apart. Little Nalan is delicate compared to his brother and Doreg keeps trying to play with him so we keep them at opposite sides of the room…”

They were too far away to hear clearly so I tried again to pull the bonnet strap away and over my chin so I could get rid of the thing. No luck, my fingers just wouldn’t dig in to get hold of it. I held one hand up and examined it ruefully. They weren’t up to the task yet.

There was something to what had been said about my skin. It was pale and veins running beneath it gave my hands a marble-like appearance. I was used to it, an Earth-aspected Exalt usually looked craggy and stonelike but I had been a little more polished in appearance during my last life. It might have carried over from my last life. If so, I wonder if my hair would be coppery again. The wisps of hair that had fallen out before had been lighter, but that didn’t mean much of anything at this age and it was too short to tell.

Running one hand up my face I finally found a little slack in the bonnet strap right in front of my ear and rubbed at it, trying to get a grip. Instead, all I managed to do was force it back onto my ear, pinching at it. “Wah!” Irritated I tried to work it back but it wasn’t working. “Wah! Wah!!” I complained.

“Naaaaa!” came a protesting wail from the next cot over.

“Oh, for the heaven’s sake!” the woman from earlier exclaimed, rushing back. She ignored me to scoop a baby out of the other cot. “I thought she was quiet!”

Medra reached me and pulled the bonnet strap off my ear. Then for a mercy she pulled the strap over my chin and peeled the offensive garment off my head entirely. “Oh, she just doesn’t like having her head covered,” she said tolerantly.

“Just don’t let her set the whole pack off,” the other woman hissed, rocking the pale-haired child soothingly in her arms. “Oh, this one’s hungry now…”

I was vaguely baffled as I was carried out into the sunlight of the porch of the manse that made up the centre of the household. Ishah, the woman who’d welcomed Medra (if that was the right word for it), was carrying me with the more familiar woman in attendance. Apparently, she was the chief of the household’s full-time nannies and therefore considered it her responsibility to carry me in what was apparently a formal occasion.

Although, I suppose that an adoption would be quite a formal occasion. I was dressed up in the little romper suit again for the occasion, although I’d been wearing a tiny tunic over my nappy all the time, in the nursery - as if it was beneath a child of the household to be laid to rest in just a glorified piece of towel - and the hated bonnet had returned.

None of that was what puzzled me though. No, the issue was what I could see. Ishah was holding me cradle-fashion so I could see up and off to the side and there was a vast mountain rearing up above the household. Not that it was that exclusive. Even from my quite limited vantage, it seemed likely that it loomed over half the countryside.

It wasn’t the largest mountain I’d ever seen – Meru, or the Imperial Mountain, was visible from anywhere on the Blessed Isle and some places across the Inland Sea. Creation being flat, only haze meant that you couldn’t see if from anywhere, but even so, anywhere in thousands of miles was ‘in the shadow’ of the Imperial Mountain.

But this one must be almost as large and it was roughly the same shape as well.

Had this been a conscious decision when my friends created the new Pole of Earth? Had Gethamane, the mountain city where we’d found it, been buried under this great peak? Why would they do so? Meru was grand, certainly, but it was also a massive pain in the neck for travel because it sat squarely in the middle of the Blessed Isle and forced massive detours to get around it. Even skyships had to avoid it because the air currents were turbulent at best.

Granted, much of that was damage from the opening battle of Usurpation, fifteen or so centuries ago, but surely something less ostentatious could have been done?

Unless somehow this was just some other mountain that had happened to form, but still…

I felt no pull towards it, but that was normal for a mortal even if it felt strange not to have an instinctive knowledge of where the Pole of Earth was. Or knowing the exact time. Would I need to own a clock?

I wasn’t taken into the manse itself, fortunately. Going into one the black stone ziggurat and not feeling the essence that must be distilled from the dragonlines by the geomancy would just be strange – like visiting one in the Underworld where the dragonlines were inflected and only the dead or those on the cusp of it could feel them.

Instead, the ceremony took place on broad steps outside, removed by an ornamental rail from the steps that led up the side of the ziggurat itself. Many of the household staff were assembled lower down them with blue-clad men and women to the sides. Mortal relatives, I guessed. There were two other children present, both around five or six years old, but none that were older. That made sense, I supposed. Likely they would be at school. Boarding schools were normal for the Scarlet Dynasty and since this Tepet branch apparently kept to those ways, I’d expect them to send their children away in that same fashion. An immaculate monk stood off to the side, separate from but notionally equal to the mortal family to judge by where he was stood.

The jerk was there, standing in the centre with a tall woman whose hair was caught up in a tiara that bore a greenish-black gem cut into a jagged triangle. As I was carried closer, I realised that it hadn’t been cut into that shape, it must have fallen into that shape naturally, for it was a hearthstone. Almost certainly that of the manse we were standing in front of. I wasn’t sure what that meant for the family dynamic though – usually the hearthstone was placed with the owner of the manse, who I would expect to be the head of the household.

There was nothing unusual in the jerk being junior – women were just as likely as men to head a household of a gente. After all, exaltation didn’t care about one’s gender so why would the Exalted. But for him to claim me as a bastard and bring me in suggested that he was very confident in his position. Was he her sibling perhaps? Their faces didn’t suggest any particular likeness and the woman lacked any obvious markers of exaltation save that no dynast would ever allow a mere mortal to hold a hearthstone…

At what seemed to be almost the last moment, a young-looking woman stepped out to join the couple at the head of the ceremony. Save for the hairstyle, she looked very much like the older woman so I guessed she was a daughter or younger sister. They stood together by a table and brazier, the former holding paper, ink bottles and brushes so there was probably going to be… shudder… paperwork.

Ugh. I had patsies to do that for me. Well, I doubt they’d want me to sign anything. I doubt I could even hold a brush.

“My family and honoured guests,” declaimed the jerk. “I welcome you to this happy occasion as my family welcomes a new member. Let all the heavens watch us, as the Imperial Mountain does this day, as my daughter Alina is formally enrolled into House Tepet.”

There was a murmur of approval as Ishah and Medra brought me forwards and I was handed over to the man.

He did at least seem to know what he was doing and kept my head supported properly as he displayed me to the gathering. “I, Tepet Demarol, born of the line of Tepet, proclaim that this is my child Alina. She is mine to support, mine to teach and to discipline, mine to protect and to employ for the greater glory of House Tepet, of the Scarlet Dynasty and of all the Realm.”

Uh, help? “Miii?” My query was lost in the applause.

The tiaraed woman accepted me next and gave me a long and assessing look before nodding in apparent satisfaction. Turning me in her arms to look out at those on the steps, she inadvertently let me see that Demarol – I knew that name from somewhere, I just couldn’t place it! – was signing his name with a brush on a document laid out on a table at the top of the steps.

“I, Tepet Yrina, acknowledge that this child Alina is the child of my husband’s loins,” she declared in a confident voice. I wasn’t sure for a moment what she intended to do about that fact. “I formally and before you all, acknowledge that this child is from this day my own child also, in the eyes of the law, to guide and educate in the traditions of the Realm and to extend and strengthen our house.”

Well, I hadn’t expected her to dash my brains out on the steps but that was more than I’d expected. Bastards usually don’t get that much attention in the gentes, even if their potential to exalt makes them valuable. Still, I was relieved to be passed back to Ishah and watched as Yrina took the brush from Demarol and quickly inked her own name beside his own.

They repeated this twice more on further pieces of parchment, which I guessed must be triplicate copies. Very officious.

With this done, the younger woman took out a bowl from the brazier beside the table and tipped a small puddle of wax onto each document. Removing a ring from his thumb, Demarol stamped it down on the wax, impressing it with what was probably the Tepet mon, or whatever personal variant of it he used.

“I stand as witness,” the young woman declared, lifting a brush and dipping it into a separate pot of ink. In red ink she added what I guessed was her own signature. “Here, on the last day of Ascending Fire, Seven Hundred and Forty-Eighth year of Her Most Scarlet Majesty, Empress of the Blessed Isle and Shogun of the Realm, I, Tepet -”

Wait, wait wait! “Uaaauaaaa!?” 748th year of the WHAT?

The woman paused and gave Ishah a firm look. It was largely unnecessary, the nanny clearly had experience and I found a rubber pacifier stuffed into my mouth to shut me up as the monk came up to add his own signature as a witness.

The Scarlet Empress had reigned for over eight centuries! By the time I unleashed the Kukla, it had been… uh, eight hundred and sixty-nine years from the Great Contagion, which should almost exactly match up to the years of her reign, since she declared herself Empress right around the end of the Contagion and of the Balorian Crusade that followed it.

Had I gone back in time!?

That’s… impossible. You can’t travel backwards in time! It’s flatly one of the very few immutable laws of Creation’s very structure. Not even the Primordials could do that – which is a good thing or their overthrow by the Incarnae and the Exalted would have been undone. The linear progression of time underlies fundamentally every aspect of Creation. It’s why the wyldlings outside hate us so – causality is alien and monstrous in their eyes.

The only times anything had ever come close to breaking time had been when the Calendar of Setesh was damaged, severing time in the Underworld from that of Creation until it was repaired at the end of the Spectre War that followed the Usurpation, and the Cascading Years when civil war among the Solar Exalted broke… Creation… oh.

The first thing that went through my mind was: Radiant Bright Wing must never know. After that I got to obscenities and profanities, of which I know quite a few.

“I think she may be teething,” Ishah whispered as she handed me over to Medra.

The older woman nodded sagely and I continued to swear to myself. No wonder Tepet Demarol was acting like a dynast at the height of the Scarlet Dynasty’s power. This really was the height of their power. If this was one of the households of House Tepet, then the Exalt was only two steps removed from the single most politically powerful person in all Creation.

I didn’t really have a detailed knowledge of the Tepet sub-Gentes at this time – most of my acquaintance with the Tepet had been years from now, after they’d been forced through a brutal rebuilding after the horrific losses they took fighting the Bull of the North around the time of…

My eyes went wide as the implications sank in. It had been more than a century, but there were so many tragedies and disasters that were now in the future and might be averted. So much I could do, now that…

Then a new sensation sank in and I screwed my eyes shut again with frustration. Right. First things first. Now, how to signal to Medra that I needed a fresh nappy?
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madd0ct0r
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by madd0ct0r »

Well this looks fun
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Oh, I am SO wanting to see where you take this
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Resplendent Air
I’d adjusted to my new home and lifestyle with relative ease. It wasn’t all that different from that I’d enjoyed as the daughter of Tepet Demarol’s now-former secretary (Ishah had dropped that bit of information while introducing the other day staff to me) except in minor details.

After a season or so it was hard at times to remember that I’d been anywhere else. Even Alina’s face was a bit of a blur in my memory. If I ever Exalted, there were charms to be able to use to refresh those memories but right now… well, maybe it was being a baby or maybe it was just being a mortal…

Yeah, the sad fact is, even the most exceptional humans are at a disadvantage, if not an insurmountable one, when pitted against the Exalted. It was a humbling reminder of how little I’d appreciated it at times.

The entertainment value of a mobile suspended above my cot or the rattle I’d been offered (though only at times when the other children were awake already) was a bit limited. Holding the rattle gave me a chance at getting to grips with, um, gripping things but there wasn’t all that much in the way of intellectual stimulation.

So, in the absence of anyone to tell me ‘that’s a stupid idea’, I spent a while meditating and trying to mould my essence.

And yes, it is a stupid idea.

For Exalted, it’s natural, something that puts us on a level with lesser spirits, demons and other spiritual beings. It’s almost entirely instinctive to do so, at least for some basic levels and only the most cripplingly inept Exalt stops at that. Can you imagine a Water-aspected Terrestrial Exalt drowning? Of course not! (They might not be able to swim, but they wouldn’t need to. Water-aspects can walk on water as easily as they can on grass.)

Mortals have much more trouble with it. We’re simply not designed for it.

When the Primordials took the First Man away from Autochthon and decided to make a slave race based on his template, they had simple specifications: we had to be able to feed ourselves, make more of ourselves and pray. The last being the most important since we were to be providers of the prayers they feed upon.

If that sounds like cattle then you’re exactly right.

Manipulating essence was absolutely not on the list. Which is not to say that a mortal can’t do it, if they try hard enough. It takes years of contemplation, frequently augmented by medication. (Or a direct act of a spirit who is doing you a favour or thinks it’ll be funny). It’s usually traumatic and it still offers markedly less return than most Exalted get out of the ability.

Enlightenment is the process of awakening that first spark of essence within you, and for mortals it’s usually reserved for the sagely hermit, the reckless would-be sorcerer or the dedicated martial artist. Most mortal authorities don’t approve very much of the last two of those. Exalted authorities vary, but the Scarlet Dynasty disapproved strongly of the first two and would grant limited tolerance to the latter solely if they were students of and regulated by the Immaculate Order, as a side-order to the monks’ more important duty of keeping spirits in their proper places and mortals offering them proper worship… and only the proper worship.

To be completely fair to the Order, most of what they did was good and necessary work. And channelling enlightened mortals into the ranks of the monks reinforced their manpower in a healthy fashion. It was something to aspire to if you didn’t Exalt.

Of course, they also got expended in place of Dragon-Blooded during the Wyld Hunts that were called to exterminate Celestial Exalted if they were heard of.

For those who come from more enlightened times (no pun intended), during this era the Solar Exalted had been all but exterminated, mysteriously failing to Exalt in anything like their previous numbers. Without the Solars, the Lunar Exalted had mostly retreated to the furthest corners of Creation (where most of them were more comfortable anyway) and those that remained were murdered as quickly as possible by Dragon-Blooded who liked being top of the power totem. There was a theological doctrine justifying this by claiming Solars and Lunars weren’t really Exalted (lies), were dangerously insane (unfortunately true due to a curse laid by the Neverborn, but also technically true of the Terrestrial Exalted) and probably demonically possessed (mostly false).

Enlightened mortals, being exemplars of skill and determination just to get to that stage, were statistically more likely to attract a celestial shard which was another reason for the powers that be to look poorly on them. Sometimes I think the only reason even the Immaculate Order tolerated them was that the Sidereal Exalted, who were busy pretending not to exist, found it a good way to prepare those destined to join their ranks for supernatural martial arts training.

So, in short, controlling your own essence is perhaps the most demanding thing any mortal could hope to do and it has a not insubstantial chance of crippling you if you get it wrong. Plus, if you do manage it, most sensible people will want to have firm conversations about keeping it to approved channels.

None of that makes it in any way appropriate as an activity for a baby who can’t even sit up yet.

But on the other hand, I was really bored. Really really bored.

I’d mastered rolling over and sucking my toes; but Medra had commented, and in fairness I agree with her, that I wasn’t physically strong enough to sit up or crawl. Baby proportions being what they are, my head made up too much of my overall body for my neck to support yet. If I wasn’t flat on my face or my back, I needed someone to support my head for it.

And so, when the nursery door opened, I was breathing steadily and staring at the ceiling with glassy eyes as I contemplated the essence of my own self and tried to isolate a single mote of it.

It wasn’t going terribly well, but the door opening got my attention. Or rather, the lack of response from the nurse who should have stood up or said something. She was as much a guard as anything else. Was something wrong?

Blinking my eyes, which were a little dry, I made the herculean effort to roll over and angle myself to look over the edge of the cot at the door. What I saw was a dark aged boy of six. I think he might have been at the adoption ceremony but perhaps not. I hadn’t got a good look at anyone but those directly involved. He was dressed pretty well though, in silk tunic and trousers that were finely detailed but obviously cut to let him grow into them.

But in any case, I knew what he was, if not who he was: entertainment.

“Goa!” I proclaimed and waggled my hands in his direction.

The boy ducked his head and looked around frantically, relaxing as he saw something on the far side of my cot.

Whatever it was, I couldn’t spot it from here so I did my party-piece and rolled over again to get to the other side of my cot. Of course, having done that I was so dizzy that I had to stop and catch my breath. Eventually, however, I managed to pick out that Usha, the day nurse on duty this afternoon, had apparently succumbed to the quiet and to the muggy weather. She was leaning back in her chair at the side of the room and snoozing.

She’d be in trouble if she was caught, I noted. On the other hand, that left me unsupervised and with a visitor, which was the most exciting thing to happen in… however long. I wasn’t sleeping regularly enough to have a good idea of the calendar.

When I looked up, I saw the boy peering down at me in the cot quizzically.

“Zagu!” I greeted him and waggled my arms welcomingly. Hello entertainment, entertain me!

He took my hand and ran his fingers over mine cautiously. “Little fingernails,” he noticed in some surprise, although he kept his voice low.

I’m not sure what he expected, but since he was right, I patted the back of his hand in congratulation. I probably shouldn’t have though, since he took that as encouragement and reached out and pinched my cheek.

Not the gentle tickle-like pinch of Medra, no he did it seriously.

“Wauuuu!” I protested, eyes watering beyond my control and flailing as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

He released me hastily and glanced at Usha guiltily. She didn’t stir – obviously a heavy sleeper. “Wauu…” I repeated in a quieter voice and sniffled, trying to control the snot that had decided to start flowing in imitation of my tears.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe at my face. I rubbed my nose and eyes on it as best I could and then gave him a smile when he removed it. He was obviously trying his best.

Leaning over he examined me again. “Are you Opiha?”

“’pa?” I managed. Hmm. No, that was the other girl in here. She was about my age I guessed – we couldn’t exactly talk and compare. I had a vague impression that she had light hair from occasional glances at her when I was out of my cot for some reason. We were sleeping next to each other, barriers to the twins who were a bit older and crawling, the lucky snots.

He nodded. “Opiha. I’m your brother Icole.” He placed one hand over his heart and bowed slightly. “My tutor wouldn’t let me in to see you until now.”

Oops, I guess he’d thought I was confirming my identity. It might be fun to trick him, but it would be bad in the long run. “’Cul,” I managed, waving my hand at him.

“That’s right, I’m Icole,” the boy confirmed.

I rolled partway over and waved in the direction of the next cot. “’Pa!”

“Yes, you’re Opiha!”

I shook my head as best I could. “’Na!” Then waved at the other cot. “’Pa!”

He frowned. “No?”

I finally slumped onto my back. Staying on my side was hard! “Na!” I said again, patting my chest. Then I stretched one hand as far towards the other cot. “’Pa!”

He turned away and investigated, “Opiha?”

There wasn’t a reply, which really didn’t surprise me. She was probably dead to the world, poor baby. At least she probably wasn’t as bored as me.

I wondered what would happen to Icole. He was probably born around 743 or so, which meant… I made a face. If he went for a soldier, which was a fairly typical career in House Tepet, then he’d probably be in the legions facing the Bull of the North in fifteen years or so. Which meant nine chances out of ten that he’d be killed.

My eyes started to water again, all on their own. Stupid immature body.

The occasional visits by Icole over the following months were something of a highlight of my first year as a Tepet. I might not be his actual sister, but since it was likely as not that one of us was asleep, he was more than happy to play with me. Particularly once I was out of the cot and crawling.

He even proved himself a true dynast-in-training when Usha woke up during his third visit and blackmailed her into giving him access in the future and not telling his tutor that he was in here. I’m not sure how much trouble he’d get into for being here, but I’m fairly sure it was nothing compared to the amount of grief Usha would get for falling asleep on duty.

She certainly never dared do it again, so that was a good thing. After all, I needed someone on attention to feed me, change my nappy and everything else I couldn’t do myself. A list that became a little shorter once I was able to sit up, scoot around my cot on my bottom (somewhat to the detriment of my nappy) and finally crawl.

Crawling around on the carpeted nursery floor was all very well, but after a while it was just about as familiar as the inside of a cot. I’d been moved into a larger one with high railed sides to keep me from getting out on my own, so it was pretty much like having my own cell.

Yes, I tried the ‘raking a cup along the bars’ thing until Medra took it off me and swatted my behind.

The toy chest was good for a little entertainment. Most of it didn’t suit me, but a stuffed tyrant lizard gave me something to practise lifting and carrying in my cot without disturbing anyone. And if Doreg wasn’t hoarding the blocks to make castles for his toy soldiers, I could play with those.

But by the time I was making my first stab at walking, I hadn’t left the nursery room in over a year, and I was sure of that because Calibration - the five days that ended a calendar year - had been celebrated twice since the adoption ceremony. All I had to look forward to was the vague promise of lessons coming up, but even those would have to wait until I could get my tongue to co-operate in talking clearly.

So, yes, it was feeling increasingly prison-like. Medra, bless her, noticed my increasing unhappiness and one morning I woke up to find her still there – as I got better at sleeping through the night, I’d wound up seeing less and less of her.

“I think she’s a little bit young to be allowed out,” Ishah was arguing half-heartedly. “I prefer that the children remain here until they’re old enough for lessons.”

“But this is a lesson,” Medra offered with a charming smile and more confidence than their relative positions in the household should have conveyed. She was older and, I suspect, wiser than Ishah. “The lesson is, if you behave well and don’t make a mess of your breakfast, you get rewarded.”

The two nannies gave me thoughtful looks and I tried to look innocent. I didn’t mean to drop my plate onto the floor the day before. I was trying to be helpful and give my mostly cleaned plate to Ishah. The fact that the ‘not cleaned’ parts of the plate included cold noodles that might be soft enough for my fledgling teeth but tasted disgusting was a coincidence. Truly.

And it was a wooden plate. Nothing had been broken!

I’m not sure how convinced they were, but the morning routine followed its usual path except that it was Medra, not one of the day nannies, helping me out of the nightdress and changing my nappy. And no, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t soiled it. Fresh day, fresh nappy was the rule. I think they’d have been less intransigent on this if they didn’t have laundry maids to foist cleaning the nappies on.

Once that was on, a fresh tunic that was so flared to fit over my nappy that it was a dress in all but name (for some reason a ‘proper dress’ was reserved for adults) and then a recent addition, knee-length bloomers.

I am convinced that I looked a complete idiot, but there weren’t any mirrors around and I wasn’t being given a choice.

Medra lifted me into a high chair for breakfast with rather more effort than she’d needed a year ago. I was growing, if not as quickly as I would have liked. There were four high chairs now and we were lined up in much the same way as the cots were – for about the same reason. Nalan was sitting sulkily next to my chair with Doreg happily seated beyond the empty fourth chair. The blond boy had taken up his spoon and was drumming it on the tray in front of him, less impatiently and more – I believe – because it made a noise.

He may also have been rubbing it in that he was the only one of us who had been given a spoon so that he could feed himself. Nalan had demanded the same privilege but after that ended with the twins flinging food at them, it had been denied.

A cheerful Opiha was dropped into the remaining chair, where she rubbed her eyes and then beamed at everyone. She was dressed the same way I was, but on her it looked cute. At first glance she seemed to be an albino with snow-white hair and crimson-irised eyes, but there was nothing unhealthy about it. If anything, her skin pallor was healthier looking than mine.

Breakfast was rice, mixed with fruit and – to my pleasure, a soft-boiled egg. Medra spooned it up matter-of-factly, gripping it firmly and refusing my attempts to take the spoon. “No, Alina,” she told me firmly. “Don’t play with your food. If you’re good we can go for a walk after breakfast.”

“Wa-” I started to ask and then got food spooned into my mouth. I glared at her, chewed and swallowed. Covering my mouth so she couldn’t do that again, I asked “Weally walk?” Damned lisp.

“Yes, really take a little walk around outside.”

I lowered my hands and let her feed me the rest of breakfast. Outside might as well have been a magic word. Even if I saw nothing I hadn’t seen before, at least I’d get out of the nursery for a while.

“Want walk!” Nalan protested from next to me.

Ishah sighed heavily.

“Can you walk across the whole nursery?” Medra asked the boy.

He nodded eagerly and then wilted when she gave him a sceptical look. “No,” the greyish-blonde haired boy admitted.

The old woman used her free hand to pat him reassuringly on the head. “When you can then I’ll take you out on a walk too. Just one of you at a time though.” Then she looked back at me. “I’m not trying to keep two of you out of trouble out there.”

I nodded in understanding. “Dat fair.” Argh. Why were ‘th’ sounds so hard for my tongue?

“Me too, me too!” exclaimed Opiha, clapping her hands and then leaning forwards to practically suck a mouthful of rice off the spoon Usha was holding.

“Of course,” agreed Medra reasonably. It wasn’t as if she’d have to honour that for a while. Opiha was still working on standing for any length of time when she had something to lean on.

With breakfast over, I thought we’d go for the walk right away – after all, Medra had been up overnight, so she would probably just want to take a short walk, then bring me back once I was tired out enough to want a nap.

But no, this made it dress up time again, for it was autumn and Ishah was bound and determined that if I was going outside that I should be fully dressed for it.

So, in addition to shoes – or rather socks with thick leather soles sewn to them – I got trousers for the first time. Over, not instead of, the bloomers. And a quilted coat that might be appropriate for deep winter, but in what seemed to be rather temperate weather made me feel overheated already.

And that was before I got the hat.

“No.” I stared at the furry cap they were offering.

Medra put her hands on her hips. “No walk?”

I pointed at the cap. “Too hot.”

“Would you rather wear the bonnet?” she asked me.

I sighed. I look stupid anyway. “Bonnet then.” At least that wouldn’t overheat me.

The bonnet, of course, was now far too small for me. It had been a year and I’d outgrown it. Finally, we compromised and Medra took the cap with us but I didn’t have to wear it unless it seemed like I was too cold.

Finally, we were ready and I got to approach the door, one hand firmly in Medra’s while the other nannies kept their charges from trying to break out with me.

Outside the room was a courtyard that I’d seen before on the way to my formal adoption. It did differ somewhat – there were no laundry poles for one, and the tree at one end was a weeping willow rather than a chestnut. It was also nearer to the nursery entrance and thus its fronds served as a partial barrier to the far end where a small group were doing something.

Walking slowly, so as not to lose my balance – and occasionally having to rely on Medra’s grip for the same reason – I made my way along the covered porch to investigate and saw Icole and two other children of a similar age being drilled in a martial arts kata by an older man.

I’d have waved but it would be poor form to distract them from their training. Instead I let Medra draw me further around, keeping my eyes locked on the training session. It seemed that they were working on the mortal basics that underlay the Five Dragons supernatural style. It was a fairly common style among Terrestrial Exalted – a soldier’s style, which included the use of the spear and the sword. It didn’t surprise me that a House Tepet household would have a sifu for the style.

“Do you like watching them?” the old nanny asked as we walked.

I nodded my head. I’d got a fair grip on Five Dragon style back before – I wouldn’t call myself a master but I was pretty good. It was a functional style that suited my preferred approach to fighting.

She let go of my hand and rested her hand on the top of my head. “Hmm, you don’t seem cold, let’s stand and watch them a little.”

I nodded and watched as the sifu worked through a series of forms, showing the children how to do it. It was a familiar set of moves, something that if you channelled essence could rip through an armoured soldier. Even without it, the target would be hit harder than you might expect.

Once he’d demonstrated, the sifu had the children perform it for him and corrected their errors.

Icole seemed to be having trouble, I noted. He had his arms right, but his leg was off-line. I instinctively moved to mimic him, then turned my leg to the correct position, trying to hint where he was going wrong.

He was quick on the uptake; I’ll give him that. By the time the teacher reached him, his leg was in the proper place and his moves had a smoothness that they had lacked earlier.

“Good,” the man grunted, giving him an approving nod. “Your balance is better.”

Medra looked down at me. “Are you bored?”

“No.” I shook my head and watched as the group worked through a defensive form to counterbalance the offensive form they’d just done. Icole seemed to have this down, but as I worked through it – as best I could in the coat and with such short limbs – he kept glancing at me for comparison.

I saw the sifu follow the dark-haired boy’s gaze and he shook his head. Then there was a thwack as he drove the heel of his hand against Icole’s shoulder, sending the boy staggering. “Watch your own form,” he said firmly. “Not distractions.” Then he turned a withering look towards myself and Medra.

The old woman dipped her head apologetically and took my hand. “Come along, Alina. We’re being a bother.”

I tried to bow to the sifu in apology, but I didn’t have the balance for it and Medra’s hand pulled me off my feet. I lost my balance, spinning slightly before I collided with the old woman’s leg.

She dropped to a crouch and picked me up. “You must be tired already.”

As tempting as it was to protest that, I knew I’d just appear petulant so instead I twisted towards the sifu and offered a dignified apology.

Well, I wish. I lisped, “I’m sowwy.” It’s not impossible to be dignified and under two feet tall, but it’s also not a trick that I’ve mastered. Particularly when I just almost did a prat-fall.

Surprisingly though, the sifu took it well. “You’re not old enough to join in at practise yet. And my current students aren’t quite ready to train with distractions around. I’ll teach you when you’re ready.”

“Dank you.” I waved to Icole, who discreetly returned the gesture.

Medra shook her head and carried me back towards the nursery. “Well, it’s a short walk but given you managed to cause trouble with that…”

“Sowwy,” I repeated.

“I’m sure that you are. Perhaps if we try this again, we’ll go somewhere else,” she offered and I brightened up at the prospect of another expedition. I thought I might have spent more time getting dressed up for this one than I had outside the nursery.

Looking up at the Imperial Mountain, visible over the buildings that surrounded the willow tree, I noticed something and giggled.

“You’re in a good mood all of a sudden?”

“Big mountain,” I declared proudly.

“Yes, little Alina. It’s a very big mountain. The biggest in all of Creation.”

That wasn’t why I was laughing though. It had just occurred to me. I must be in Juche Prefecture, judging by the angle I was seeing the mountain from. So, I’d been reborn in time… but in space I’d been born only a few miles beneath where I had – or would – die. There was an irony to that.

Learning through playing was not exactly a new idea and the nannies started us off on learning to read with bricks marked with letters. I tried to underplay that I knew them all already and tried to make believable mistakes, but incompetence is a deception that comes hard to me and I quickly overtook Nalan, a year older than me. It was hard enough to let his twin win in the little ‘say the letter’ games.

Once Medra was sure I knew all ninety-five characters (albeit in a simplified script) we went on to learning words. This was serious business, even if we were using wooden blocks. There was a highly official Imperial Vocabulary that children were required to know and be able to say and spell – starting with three thousand words needed for writing instructions in a basic military or bureaucratic role, and then working your way up.

At higher levels, graduating a major secondary school required demonstrating you could correctly use tens or hundreds of thousands of words applicable to the school’s focus. Even at the Heptagram, the Realm’s one official school of sorcery, spelling bees were a major part of testing. Especially at the Heptagram, in fact, since making a mistake in your spelling or pronunciation when you’re summoning or binding a demon can be fatal – and not just for the sorcerer.

At least here I could relax a bit, since High Realm wasn’t my first language and I’d never actually been formally educated in it. I spoke the major trading tongues and Old Realm, the tongue from which High Realm was derived, but they were significantly different. Still, I understood the concepts far better than any of the others so caution was indicated.

“She’s very bright,” Medra reported to Ishah, who seemed unimpressed but guardedly allowed that the excursions of walking around the courtyard (but not when martial arts training was underway) could continue.

Doreg got his own excursions, naturally, and Nalan eventually graduated to them – although he tired quickly and (like me) he was so far still confined to the children’s courtyard, as I learned that this part of the village-sized complex around the manse was called. There were others and Doreg, the lucky dog, got to make a passing visit through the stables, one of the guest courtyards and even visiting his mother’s quarters in the family courtyard.

On one of those walks he returned with an interloper, or at least that was how it felt.

Toddling was a bit young to be picking up a girl, but at about the time I was first allowed to start trying to recreate letters on a wax tablet, Doreg was walked back in by Usha and they were followed by another servant and a girl who was just a little taller than even the twins. The servant was carrying bags and they were pretty clearly moving her in.

Opiha found the brown-haired girl intimidating for some reason she couldn’t express and half-hid behind me as Doreg aped the manners of our elders and introduced us all.

“Cousin Hunt, this is my brother Nalan, he’s ill all the time,” the blond declared boldly. “And these are the girls. Alina and Opiha with the white hair.”

Hunt – the girl’s name, I correctly assumed – stalked forwards. “You should curtsey,” she corrected us. “’M a lady of the dynasty.”

Opiha eeped and tried to obey, but had to lean on me instead. “You shoot curtsey too,” I told Hunt. “First, wan you intro-doos yourself.” It would have been more effective a put down if I’d been able to handle the pronunciations.

Hunt jerked her head back, but then stumbled on verbally without acknowledging the point. “Which one of you is the ba-steward?”

“Little Hunt!” Ishah gasped, pulling her back. “You should not use the word.”

“But it’s true,” the brunette asserted. “My mama said that grandfather had adopted a ba-steward because she was a dragonseed. And stewards are servants, not dynasts.”

Medra gave the servant accompanying Hunt a long, sceptical look. “The word, little Hunt, is bastard.” She pronounced it carefully. “It has nothing to do with steward. I will get out the blocks and show you how they are different.”

“An excellent idea,” Ishah agreed. “And little Alina became your aunt when the lord adopted her, so she will form the fourth branch of the household.”

I looked up at that, keeping my fingers interlaced with Opiha’s. That sounded useful to know. I didn’t really have a good grip on how we were related, or supposedly related, yet. “What are the bwanches?”

Hunt drew herself up. “I’m the daughter of the second branch, ba-steward.”

Ishah had apparently had enough of that, because she hoisted Hunt off the floor and carried her to a seat. “I’ve told you not to use that word,” she said firmly. “Now you’ll sit there and think about what you did wrong. If it happens again, there will be a spanking.”

Usha cleared her throat. “The lord and lady have four living children,” she explained to me, subtly drawing the rest of us over towards where Medra was unpacking the blocks with letters on them. When they have children themselves, they form their own branch of the household. Opiha’s grandfather Lord Etune is the head of the first branch, little Hunt’s mother lady Erasa is the second branch – although she has been living with her husband until now. And Doreg and Nalan’s mother Lady Awyne has founded the third branch.”

I nodded slowly to show that I understood, but Nalan chewed his lip. “We should be da second branch,” he claimed. “We was here first.”

“Your mother is the younger sister of Hunt’s mother.” Usha smoothed her skirt down. “Just like you’re Doreg’s younger brother.”

“Now, who can guess how to spell steward?” asked Medra, showing us the blocks.

Doreg eagerly plunged in, eager to show his education. He was very proud of how he could recognise words. Fortunately, High Realm was a phonetic language. The hieroglyphs of the Dragon King’s High Holy Speech had always given me trouble. (Dragon Kings are nothing to do with Dragon-Bloods, incidentally. They’re an almost extinct race of sun-worshipping lizards).

“I want to do it!” Nalan complained. “I can do it.”

“Why don’t you help little Alina spell adopted,” suggested Medra tolerantly.

The boy considered that and then nodded, scrabbling over the blocks looking for ones that sounded right as he read them off aloud. He was a little vague on the concept of ‘help’ but he was only three.

Opiha crawled forwards to the chest and pulled out a doll that she hugged to herself. Then she studied the doll’s hair and discarded it, finding another doll with lighter hair to hug. I sat down next to her and put one arm around her shoulders.

“Once you can spell the words with blocks, we’ll see if you can write them in wax.”

The two excited boys accelerated their sorting of the blocks, almost coming to blows over the PI block until I crawled over and took hold of it. “Wong block,” I said firmly and put it down. “It is not ado-pi-ted.”

“That’s right, little Alina,” confirmed Medra. “What have you boys found so far? Why don’t you sort them out and see what you need?”

Once we had the words out, Hunt was allowed off the seat and joined us as four wax tablets were provided, smoothed out since their last use. Opiha was carried off as she wasn’t comfortable with writing yet and we four started trying to copy out the two words onto our respective tablets.

My fingers just didn’t have the dexterity yet though. I was still so much smaller than the others, still – intellectually I knew that a year or so’s difference wasn’t going to lapse soon but it was frustrating. I could only clench my little fist around a stylus and draw straight-lines in the wax, but curves always wildly distorted.

Frustrated, I stared at what I’d done. It was so distorted that I couldn’t even pretend I had the letters right.

“Perhaps next time,” Medra noted and scooped me up. “How about a nap, Alina?”

“Metitate!” I proclaimed. I’d slipped and used the word before, so all I could do was play into it.

The old woman nodded; lips curled in amusement. “Yes, of course, meditation.” She moved me into my cot and sat me down. “Don’t let us disturb your meditation.”

I closed my eyes. “Won’t.”

Almost, but not quite out of hearing, I heard Usha murmur: “At least she doesn’t throw tantrums like Nalan.”

“He has a sensitive disposition,” Ishah said a little louder. “And don’t speak ill of the masters’ children.”

I tried to ignore them and focus on my essence again. I wasn’t making much progress, but there was just enough sensation of it to feel that I was getting somewhere with it. I slowly leaned back, feigning that I was actually falling asleep. The delicate effort to keep myself balanced and only steadily recline rather than slumping down directly would help my abdominal muscles. I was going to need to be fit and healthy for martial arts classes once I was old enough.

Finally, flat on my back I feigned a yawn that drew out much more than I had expected. Maybe I was… a little… tired…?

Zzzzz.

I barely noticed someone pulling a blanket up over me.

Before martial arts could begin, it seemed that we were to have some other active classes. They did at least not take place in the nursery so I was enthusiastic right up until I saw the harp outside on the grass next to our teacher for this.

I am, shall we say, not very adept at music. In addition to being basically tone-deaf. Maybe I could have a drum to beat. I can at least keep a regular beat.

There was no drum and any relief at learning the harp was for our teacher was eclipsed by the idea that we would be singing.

“Music is very important for soldiers,” the harpist explained. Nolly was an eager looking woman with her hair cropped rather short. “On a long march it keeps the spirits up.” She ran her hand over the strings, plucking at them idly. “In camp it entertains. And a singer’s voice is important for projecting your words on a battlefield. Both officers and soldiers charged with relaying their words benefit from singing.”

She was apparently paying no real attention to her playing as she instructed us. Nalan was definitely interested though, the boy had perked up and was watching her fingers intently.

“And of course, there are the courtly times here at home. I can’t count the times I’ve performed for your grandfather either as the entertainment for his guests or simple background music during a banquet. As children of the household, you’re all expected to be competent in arranging such matters and perhaps showing off your talents to guests.”

She rubbed her hands together and indicated a chalkboard next to her. “I’ve written the words to a song here for you to sing, so move closer until you can all read it.”

We obediently clustered forward and Usha brought stools out for us to use between singing, Opiha and I at the front while the older three sat behind us.

“Now first just read along as I sing, then we’ll all have a go,” Nolly instructed.

I recognised the topic of the song – an extremely simplified tale of the Immaculate Dragon Mela learning the secrets of sorcery so she could wield them against the Anathema. A very stripped-down adaptation of an original where it was the legendary Solar Exalted Brigid who first discovered the art of sorcery. For some reason the Terrestrials were not eager to give such credit to the tyrants they’d overthrown.

Still, ancient politics aside, it didn’t look too bad and Nolly sang it well, before running us through the chorus en masse. I would like to stress that I don’t dislike singing. I just recognise that I’m no good at it.

The chorus was alright, with any issues I had masked by the other children, although Nolly was looking at each of us carefully in turn.

We would sing in order of age, she decided. Hunt first as the oldest, followed by Doreg, Nalan, myself and Opiha. Each of us would have a turn at the verses while we would continue to sing the chorus together.

To be completely fair, while I have issues with Hunt’s behaviour, she was a decent singer. Doreg might have been better, although I couldn’t really have judged.

And then it was Nalan’s turn and by the Bath of Venus, that boy can sing. His voice hadn’t broken yet of course, we were easily ten years from that, but he was clear and… I don’t know the words. But he’d clearly been listening to Nolly carefully and as best I could tell he hit every note.

The harper favoured him with a smile and a “Very well done,” rather than the milder compliments the earlier two had received.

Then it was my turn and Nolly’s smile visibly slipped as I shrilled my way through the verses. “That was a good try,” she told me diplomatically and turned towards Opiha. The little girl gamely stood up and… lalala’d her way through the song, picking up around one word in five.

The sad thing was, she was at least hitting the notes better than I did. Doreg was positively sniggering.

“I see,” Nolly observed when we were done. “Well, I think that Alina and Opiha may be a little young yet for the singing so we’ll start the two of you dancing while the older children keep singing.” She beckoned Usha over and the two women demonstrated some simple and repetitive dance steps. “The two of you need to keep this in track with the song,” she explained. “You’re partners so try to keep in unison.”

Well at least I wouldn’t be embarrassing myself too much if I didn’t have to open my voice. Opiha seemed a bit put out that we weren’t singing but since she wasn’t alone in that, she put her chin up and followed me off to the side where we could dance in Nolly’s view without distracting the three singers.

If anyone thinks that two little girls could master even simple dance steps some time… well, you’re fools. But martial arts training does involve a fair bit of watching someone move and then trying to copy them, so I wasn’t at a dead loss.

Opiha wasn’t as practised, but she was enthusiastic and really not any clumsier than I was. She was able to walk on her own now so we had that going for us. I’m sure that we didn’t look at all graceful, but after the fourth or fifth time we were more or less on the right marks.

By the seventh or eighth, it was boring and that was where I started throwing in some variations. The dance steps weren’t so very different from one of the more esoteric martial arts I’d picked up over the years, perhaps an overlap since it was one that I’d picked up when moving in courtly circles. If you can’t think of a reason that a martial artist might want to mask their moves as dance steps, then you’ve clearly never attended a formal ball where poisons are being dished out both literally and figuratively as liberally as the wine and canapes.

It was a little challenging to do some of the steps with shorter limbs and with the bulk of a nappy around my hips (such as they were) – I was looking forward so much to moving on to less restrictive undergarments. Hunt wasn’t in a nappy so hopefully it wouldn’t be far off that Ishah would accept that I had adequate control over my bladder and bowels.

“Very good, Opiha,” Nolly congratulated the other girl during a break in the singing. “You’re getting the hang of it. I thought you were getting it down, Alina but you’ve been tottering for the last few times. Are you tired?”

“No,” I said honestly. Stumbling indeed. That was the Owl Clutching sequence, adding in more complex footwork.

“Hmm.” She didn’t seem convinced. “Just try copying Opiha.”

“Yes teacher.”

“Usha.” She beckoned the servant over. “Please keep a closer eye and correct Alina if she needs it.”

“Opiha’s such a good dancer,” Hunt declared to Doreg in a carrying voice. “And Nalan can sing very well.” There was an illustrative pause. “I’m sure Alina has other talents.”

Poisonous little crow, it was no surprise that her father was apparently from House Cynis.

As classes went on, we occasionally found ourselves studying with the older children. Not often, since there were a few years between Icole, the youngest of his particular batch of children, and Hunt. But sometimes age didn’t particularly seem to matter; or the older children were being set to prove what they’d learned by teaching it to us - under supervision, naturally.

There were times when this provided a helpful edge of maturity, but since we were dealing with children on the verge of being sent off to boarding school with children several years from that, I could count those occasions on the fingers of one hand.

Which was fortunate because formal Creation mathematics is in base five so that was how we were taught to count. Thumb, forefinger, long finger, ring finger, Littlefinger… one, two, three, four, five. Then raise a finger on your other hand and repeat. Gets you up to twenty-five without needing more than two hands.

When I saw Doreg following Icole around under the willow tree, asking him about the history of House Tepet, I knew that this was not going to be one of those helpful times.

The fact that Nalan was sulking from the porch told a story, given he’d had a coughing fit last night. He was bundled up in a heavy coat and hat, much as I’d been the first time I was allowed out.

I toddled up behind him and patted him on the shoulder. “Do you feel better?”

“Go away,” he grumbled.

I sat down on the edge of the porch and swung my legs. “Dey won’t let me out.” ‘Th’ was still my nemesis.

“Go back inside then.” He tucked his hands up under his elbows, although it wasn’t really all that cold. “I don’t want to talk to a dirty bastard.”

I blinked. Huh, Ishah would be annoyed that they hadn’t drummed that word out of our lexicon after Hunt brought it up. “I had a bath last night. You were there.”

Bath night was a pretty public affair, since there was one pair of bathtubs, we all used one at a time, like a production line of being soaked and soaped up in the first tub, then rinsed with water from the second tub of hot water, and then getting to soak in that second tub until the next child was rinsed off.

Nalan gave me a sidelong look. “That’s not what it means.”

“What does it mean?”

“...”

I pulled on his sleeve. “What’s a dirty ba-steward?”

“It’s not ba-steward, it’s bastard,” the boy corrected me. “And you’re a bastard.”

I wasn’t going to tell him he was wrong, because he wasn’t. It was still a circular argument though. “So, what’s wrong with being a bastard?”

He froze again. “I…”

I kicked my legs back and forth until he seemed about to say something and then changed the subject. “Are you mad at Doweg?”

“Yes!” Nalan exclaimed and then shook his head. “No.”

I reached over and patted him. “Ith okay to be mad at him sometimes.” Ah! I’d done ‘th’... but not when I was trying to! Curse this tongue. No, wait, I’d been cursing it for a year now. Bless this tongue! Bless it with not making me lisp!

“But he’s my twin.”

“So?”

“Ishah says I shouldn’t be mad at my twin.”

“Ishah says Doweg thouldn’t leave you behind to play with Icole,” I pointed out and pointed at the two of them. “Ith okay to be mad.”

Nalan moved over and sat down next to me. “But what can I do? I can’t beat Doreg at anything. I’m always ill and I keep falling behind. Even you’re better at reading now and you’re tiny.”

“Sanks.” I thought about it and then remembered that in reading class, Icole had been charged with reading us the introduction to the Thousand Correct Actions of the Upright Soldier. The book was a manual for soldiers in the legion and practically gospel within the martial House Tepet. We weren’t expected to know the details of the contents yet, but the introduction and its basic philosophy were something we were introduced to early.

“In the next class, after Doweg shows off by answering something, tell him he’s a ‘pewfected ideal of a fighting individual’,” I quoted, sounding the words out carefully. Argh, so close!

Nalan lay back. “Why should I say something nice to him if I’m mad?”

“Because it’s not something nice.” Doreg had been pestering Icole so much he’d not really had much chance to explain the text to myself or Nalan. It would be perfectly understandable Nalan had misunderstood it, and if Doreg was so puffed up that he accepted it as a compliment…

I covered my mouth so I didn’t giggle evilly. I really didn’t want to be an evil child, that would be creepy.

“It sounds nice,” muttered Nalan.

“The upright soldier is not an individual,” I explained. “That’s how the Thousand Correct Action admonishes the pwideful and Doweg is pwetty pwideful.”

Nalan laughed. “You’re really smart, Alina.”

“Sank you.”

“How come you’re so clever when you’re little?”

“I haveta be clever because I’m little.” I sighed despondently. Even Opiha was taller than I was now. Medra had started working some of the tunics the white-haired girl had been using into my own selection, since they fit on me but didn’t on her. It just wasn’t fair.

It was lonely not having anyone to talk to on my level. Then again, if I ran into any of my old Circle, they’d probably tease me incredibly over being a little girl. Not in a mean way, but because jabbing at each other over inconsequential things was how we showed affection.

Instead I was surrounded by children I could run metaphorical circles around and adults who wouldn’t take me seriously unless I told them enough about me for them to be sure I was a threat to their status. Some of my circle might have been able to leverage being a little girl somehow - some of the more social butterfly types could meld that perfectly with being utter killing machines, but I was too blunt and direct to be cute.

Um. That perfected fighting individual cut a bit close, now that I thought about it. I was a Terrestrial Exalt, by design I should be working as a pack with my kinfolk. Instead I’d gravitated to being the support and logistics for a circle of Celestials, cheating my way up to parity with them in areas like combat so that I wasn’t a liability.

Perhaps I would get more from studying the Thousand Correct Actions of the Upright Soldier than I thought.

“I have another idea,” I declared, climbing up to my feet. “Leth go inside and ask Ishah for the Thousand Cowwect Actions tho we can wead it together.”

Nalan groaned and rolled over. “Okay,” he agreed and coughed.

We exchanged looks and sighed. Better get inside now, before that got worse and the nannies put him to bed for the day. I wasn’t sure if they were overreacting or not. My medical knowledge was more about battlefield surgery and esoterica than it was about childhood illnesses.

The children’s courtyard did include a good-sized classroom for teachers to use when the weather or the specifics of a lesson didn’t fit well with teaching us outside in the courtyard. Larger than we really needed, but I suspected it was planned for more children - perhaps Demarol had once been a larger household or perhaps it was just scaled to allow for growth in our numbers in the future. Natural light was somewhat constrained inside, but the importance of education was such that when the room was used, a rare treasure was employed.

Before class began, Ishah unlocked a heavy chest that was chained to the wall and allowed Nolly to remove the contents, placing a crystal sphere in a sconce mounted higher up the wall. A dim flicker of light at the heart of the sphere began to swell in magnitude and after a moment light streamed from it, providing ample illumination for our lessons.

The crystal was centuries old, an imperishable luxury that even wealthy families didn’t have many of. Which was kind of sad because two thousand years ago, they’d been made in such quantities that even the humblest household had thought nothing of using them to light every room.

Unfortunately, the only factory-cathedral making them had been in the far West, on an island that fell into the Wyld during Balor’s Crusade. And imperishable was not the same as unbreakable. Year after year, century after century, they’d become less and less available.

I could make another, given the right tools, but it was ridiculously inefficient to tie up one craftsman and his tools and assistants for months to make one glorified lightbulb. And retooling one of the tiny handful of factory-cathedrals to construct them was unthinkable when their services were vital to maintaining the Realm’s military infrastructure.

And thus, lights had gone out steadily across Creation.

Today’s lesson was arithmetic, which was couched in Nolly reading problems out from an instructional manual and leaving it up to us to work out what approach to use to solve it. For fairness, she gave us individual problems geared to our respective levels and we had time to work them out while she went around the room, taking answers and giving new problems.

Of course, this meant that I was left solving the problems almost immediately and sitting waiting while Nolly explained to Opiha that if four legionnaires can each defeat four tribesmen then the lowest number of tribesmen that outnumber the four legionnaires is seventeen…

(Well, she literally said thirty-two, but that’s the same thing. I swear, base five maths drove me up the wall until I got used to it).

To be absolutely fair to Doreg, he was probably about as bored as I was since he was solving his problems just as quickly. Hunt, who was getting roughly the same level of questions I was, seemed to need every minute and I really didn’t want to be too obviously upstaging her. Being ‘a bright child’ can cover for a lot, but a four-year-old being better at long division than a five-year-old was pushing it.

While it was raining outside, it wasn’t a cold rain and despite the bright light I was feeling sleepy. Somewhere between Nolly having to take Nalan’s slate to find out exactly he’d managed to calculate that a third of seven hundred came to a whole number and setting him a new problem, my eyes locked on motes of dust visible in the streams of light from the orb on the wall.

They were positively dancing in front of me and I felt myself slipping into the same meditative trance that usually presaged a nap. Although I was getting better about that!

Nolly asked for my answer, I gave it and absently noted down the next problem, eyes still following the motes.

There was something that seemed to hover just outside my reach as I thought about the problem and then made a note of the answer. Fortunately, I didn’t have to show working. As far as our tutors were concerned, the results were what mattered. If we’d succeeded by cheating well enough that we didn’t get caught then we’d still succeeded.

The answer was there, I thought. Close enough that I could just reach out a-n-d-

The shock went through me like a jolt of lightning. My legs kicked involuntarily and knocked the stool out from under me.

I hit the floor on my side and lay there blinking. What had happened?

The motes were still there, dancing as I breathed.

Even in the shadows under the desk?

Dust motes shouldn’t be visible there…. Motes. Motes-motes-motes… yes!

“Little Alina?” Nolly had moved over to look down at me. “What are you doing down there?”

I had enlightened myself! Yes!

“I don’t know?” I offered uncertainly. “I fell off my stool.”

The tutor folded her arms. “Really. I wouldn’t have guessed. And why did you fall off your stool?”

“I…” What to say? “I dreamed I exalted.” Actually, that would be more believable than enlightening myself, even if I’d be unprecedentedly young for Terrestrial Exaltation.

“Dreamed, eh?” Nolly leaned over and helped me up. “I take it that you were asleep.”

Red-faced I nodded. There was a snicker from Doreg, echoed almost immediately by Nalan and Hunt. Opiha just looked sympathetic

“I see.” Nolly gave me a thoughtful look. “How sad that I am boring you with these lessons. I shall have to give you something else to think about. Bend over.”

I winced and obeyed. I couldn’t see but I knew what was happening - it had happened before just not to me. Nolly removed her shoe and then swatted me sharply across the backside with the flat of it. I yelped at the smarting impact.

“Now sit down again,” the tutor told me and picked up my slate, reading off the answer. “I suppose you at least did your work. Copy out times tables up to twenty times twenty.”

“Yes teacher,” I acknowledged meekly and wiped my slate clean to start that.

My head was pounding and my tender buttocks were going to be on a hard stool for the rest of the lesson, but I had reached out and touched a mote for the first time since my rebirth. It was a small first step, but it was a step in the right direction.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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Enlightenment is always a hard thing. Like falling into the floor.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Descending Air

With access to my essence, new horizons opened up to me in terms of what I could do. And at around the same time, I received literal new horizons with the departure of Icole and the older children to their boarding schools.

Not that I was pleased to see him go. For one thing Opiha was sad to see her brother depart for months, not to return until summer. For another, he had more time for we younger children than our older cousins did.

But with his departure there were calls from the main manse for children to carry out simple tasks - fetching and carrying for guests, for example. Tepet Demarol entertained on a grand scale and having children of the household attend on the most favoured guests was something of an honour he could bestow.

Besides that, it acquainted us with the habits of the dynasts and patricians who made up high society both in general and in specific identifications. None of the chores were onerous - we were still small children after all, but it was well within our scope to carry a scroll from one guest room to another, or to guide someone unfamiliar with the estate. Honestly, minding our manners was more of a challenge.

Naturally this meant that we were no longer confined to the children’s courtyard. You can’t guide anyone unless you’re familiar with the area, so we received both tours and license to do some exploring.

I felt so very liberated, even if it was only within an area a mile or so across. I had some independence at last! I could spend some free time alone or almost.

It would have been suspicious to overdo it, of course, but I’d found a spot at the bottom of the garden where no one really went - nothing special, just a plot of land near the compost heaps. The garden staff had a regular schedule for dealing with that, so as long as I only went there in the afternoons, I could have some private time and actually get some practise in.

And boy did I need it!

Not only had it been years since I’d actually done any martial arts beyond the very very basic training we were now getting at last, but I had an entirely new body with very different proportions from what I was used to.

I was beyond rusty, so I was glad that no one could see me trying (and failing) at some of the most basic elements of Crimson Pentacle Blade style. It was one of the most forgiving supernatural martial arts in some respects, with very little essence required - which was good given my paltry reserves and control. Unfortunately, it was also quite demanding of the body and…

Well, I was maybe half the height and a third the weight that I had once had.

In full form, I’d cleaved through an entire circle of necromancers with this art. But right now, I might as well have been attempting the mighty defensive charms that allowed champions among Dragon-Blooded to resist the compulsions of the Anathema, charms that required levels of essence that most Exalted simply never attained.

It would be embarrassing if…

“Look, Doreg, Alina’s trying to dance!”

...it would have to be Hunt, wouldn’t it?

Turning I was just in time to see Doreg’s blond head pop up over the hedge next to Hunt’s face.

“It was ever so funny,” the older girl declared.

I huffed. So much for today’s practise. The brats would pester and distract me for the fun of it and this was hard enough with full focus. If I was past the initial hurdles then that might make it worthwhile, but not at this stage. “What do you want?”

“Dance for us!” Doreg cheered.

“I’m not a puppet, Doreg.”

He made a face and scrambled down, running around to the entrance to this part of the gardens. “Show me, show me!”

“Why should I?”

He looked around and then reached into the compost, pulling out a handful of wet soil. “If you don’t then I’ll wipe this down your dress and tell Ishah you were playing in the mud!”

...he would as well. Doreg was bright himself, and easily bored. He was far from above getting someone into trouble if he thought they were keeping something fun away from him.

“Just try it!” I ran at him on my still-stubby legs and feinted to one side. He almost fell for it, but then realised I was going to get around him on the other side and brought the handful of mud around -

Just in time for me to swing my arm up in a block. The compost went flying past me without making contact but then I was past him. Hunt dropped down to block one way so I went the other way, out into the garden. It was better than trying to avoid two children with more reach than I had in confined lanes and passages.

“She’s getting away from you!” Hunt taunted.

“Come back and dance!” called the boy as he gave chase.

Oh, how the mighty had fallen. The famous Bookwyrm, put to flight by a pair of six-year-old children. But the downside of the comparative freedom we had now was balanced by painful consequences if we were caught misbehaving.

There were no guests this week, Demarol was visiting one of the neighbouring estates for a banquet, but that meant that there was much less of someone turning up that the others wouldn’t dare hound me in front of.

The two of them were faster than I was, too. I had to rely on cornering to keep ahead of them and if they worked together effectively…

“You go left, I’ll go right!” Doreg called.

Teamwork! Admirable, if it wasn’t being directed at me!

Okay, I thought as I looked for a way out. I needed to use my brains to get past them. Outsmart them. What did I have that they didn’t? What were my advantages?

Well… they had me cut off from the exits to this part of the garden, but…

I ran along the hedge that broke the garden up and scrambled under it. My tunic picked up a little dirt but nothing like the amount that Doreg had threatened me with. And it was fairly dry. The two of them probably couldn’t follow me – I’m smaller than them, after all.

Now I had the time to get away, even if it was just a brief opportunity until they’d realised that I’d escaped this way.

As it turned out, I barely got around the edge of the ornamental maze before they were on my trail.

“What are you doing?” Nalan sat on the branches of an apple tree, part of the impractically tiny orchard that separated the maze from the private garden backing onto the manse itself.

“I -”

“Nalan!” shouted his twin. “Catch her! Cut her off!”

I made a pleading look.

Hunt’s voice cut across the orchard, “Don’t be a wimp, Nalan!”

The grey-haired boy scowled. “I’m no wimp!” He dropped off the branch, scrambling down and blocking me from exiting the gardens.

“You’re a dumbass!” I snapped and turned sharply to run into the private garden. I wasn’t actually forbidden from going in there and perhaps one of the Exalted would be there and act as a restraint on them.

Unfortunately, no one appeared to be present at the moment, despite the basket-woven garden chair and table set out with a tray full of treats near the middle.

The private garden was neither particularly large nor especially ornate, just a hedged-in piece of well-tended lawn and some flowerbeds with two paved sitting areas dug down to perhaps knee depth with carefully placed stones around the edges where people could sit. It was a reasonably clever use of the geomancy requiring a depression in those places although personally I’d have gone with ponds, given the manses’ hearthstone was clearly a Kill-Hands Gem, enhancing one’s martial arts.

Water, you see, is associated with most martial arts. I’d have used this garden for my practise if it wouldn’t have drastically enhanced the chances of my activities being noted as not dancing but an unapproved form of martial arts.

The Immaculate Monks got decidedly shirty about styles that they didn’t teach and therefore theoretically control. They’d almost exterminated the Blessed Isle’s sub-style of Crimson Pentacle Blade style until I took it up and started teaching it. I assume that her Scarlet Majesty had called them off, since continued persecution would have been disruptive to the rather delicate diplomacy between the Realm and the northern lands.

Unfortunately, the only other exit to the private garden than the one I’d come in through was into the manse and we very definitely did not have permission to enter that.

I considered trying the same trick I’d done before and going under, but unlike that hedge, this one was holly and there wasn’t much more than two inches of clearance under it. I’m not that small. Over was also out - the hedge was higher than my head and would have been even if I had my previous height.

So that left…

I ran to the chair and tried to hide behind it. It wouldn’t work – you could practically see through it – but it didn’t have to work. It just had to fail convincingly.

“I see you!” Nalan shouted triumphantly as he entered the garden. Doreg was right behind him and the twins split up automatically to outflank me coming around the chair from both directions.

I didn’t run though. I grabbed the bottom of the chair and heaved.

It was heavy but not unmanageable since the design meant that it was hollow. And all I needed to do was tip it over.

There was an almighty crash as the chair fell over right on the table and knocked that over, spilling the tray of sweets and cookies all over the grass. Hunt, about to enter the garden, visibly thought better of it and ran for her life.

Inside the manse there was a startled cry and the sound of feet. I had just a moment more to set the scene and so I dived onto the appalled Nalan, sending him stumbling into the mess as my shoulder hit him below the ribs and set him off coughing.

“What is going on here!” an outraged voice announced the presence of the most powerful current resident of the estate.

And now for my secret weapon: crocodile tears. If my stupid infant body insisted on crying at everything, I would use it to my advantage.

“Waaah!” I cried, sobbing dramatically. “It’s not Nalan’s fault! Doreg PUSHED him!”

Tepet Yrina stared at us, at the ruined food. At the upturned furniture. The locks of hair not secured by her tiara blew in a wind that touched none of us. “And what, may I ask,” she said silkily, “Were the three of you doing here in the first place?”

“Alina’s -” Doreg tried to defend himself but I cut him off.

“H-H-hunt said there were s-s-sweeties,” I wailed and snivelled pathetically. “I’m sowwwy!”

“Hunt, hmmm?”

“But I didn’t…” protested the older twin.

“Shut up Doreg.” The Dragon-Blood brushed him aside and picked up Nalan with no visible effort, laying him out on the grass in a more comfortable position. “Are you having trouble breathing, grandson?”

Nalan was red-faced. “Uff-uff,” he panted. “Nuh, no?”

I sniffed and sobbed, but otherwise stayed silent, letting my adoptive grandmother draw her own conclusions. She was not, it must be said, one likely to spend an excess of time on a matter of children squabbling.

Once, twice, her hand whip-cracked across Doreg’s face – carefully calculated force to humiliate and pain him without doing any serious damage. “You are not allowed to roughhouse with your brother. If you cannot heed these instructions then you cannot be trusted with other matters,” Yrina told him flatly. “You are confined to the children’s courtyard for a month.”

He opened his mouth to protest but then visibly reconsidered.

“And since the rest of you children value sweets and other treats so little as to trample them into the dirt,” she added. “I see no need to provide them for any of you children for that same month.”

Her gaze was scathing. “Stop snivelling, Alina. Show some dignity.”

I sniffed and let the tears and other signs of distress fade convincingly into repentance. “’m sowwy.”

“Then show your repentance by being better,” the Exalt spat. She eyed the mess on the ground and shook her head. “I am disgusted with all three of you. Four,” she amended. “Hunt as well. Whatever convinced you to believe some tall tale she told you?”

Servants were called to take us back, the twins glaring at each other and at me. I pretended not to notice.

“This is all your fault,” Nalan whined when we were left alone under the willow tree after Doreg was marched off to be handed over to Ishah first.

I gave him a little grin. “Doreg confined for a month while you aren’t? Say thank you.” I could manage ‘th’s now, mostly.

The boy paused and blinked. “Huh.” I gave him a look and he sighed. “Thank you, ‘Lina.”

“You’re welcome.” Hopefully Opiha would blame the others for no sweets, not me.

Some six or seven months after that glorious dumping of blame on Doreg, it had mostly been forgotten by everyone but the participants. Children will be children, after all.

A month of as much separation as I could engineer had split the twins remaining ties though, leaving Doreg and Hunt allied with each other against myself and Nalan. A bemused Opiha was only too pleased to exploit being the swing vote in any decisions made by we children, reaping bribes from both sides even if I’m not sure which side of the tale she believed to be true.

While having an ally made it considerably easier to get along in the hothouse of the children’s courtyard, that didn’t change the fact that I was hitting a wall when it came to my advancement. I had to face the facts: until I was more physically mature, I wasn’t going to make more than incremental improvement in Crimson Pentacle Blade or in the more approved martial arts I was re-learning. It was useful to continue to build my foundation, but it wasn’t going to be an equalizer if I needed to use something now.

And I hated how helpless I was at the moment.

Being a sheltered child is all very well and I didn’t recall any events in Juche Prefecture that would endanger some of the most pampered children in the world… but I hadn’t been in any position to be aware of such. And even if none happened, the simple fact was that if I didn’t exalt my future was going to be even more constrained. I needed to be ready for that, because my best – if vague – estimation was that I had maybe two chances in five of Exalting.

I’m not a gambler. I’ll stake money – or lives – on my skills, or others’ bad habits. And I’ve done so with great success over the years. But factors entirely outside my control or ability to predict… ugh.

That left more obscure martial arts as my best form of security. The sort of arts that no one would be able to predict or see coming. And they needed a deeper grasp of my essence than I had.

The extent of one’s essence scales in various ways. I really had no more than any other mortal or some of the weakest of spirits. Objectively, the fact I could touch it at all put me at a huge advantage once I could apply it usefully, but that depended on long practise. And it wasn’t enough for anything esoteric.

Terminology varies, but in general there are ten stages of spiritual development in mastering one’s essence: the five mortal plateaus and the five immortal courts. I was on the first step, having just barely crossed the threshold of the lowest mortal plateau when I touched my essence for the first time. For what I was working on, I needed to move on to the second plateau.

An Exalt could move to the second or even third mortal plateau with very little effort. It was one of the things that made them so incredibly dangerous. For a mortal, that could be the journey of an entire lifetime. To go beyond that was, despite the name, not really attainable without ceasing to be mortal somehow. The highest mortal plateau was named that solely because it was the greatest height that more spiritually awakened beings could reach within a mortal’s life.

I didn’t really fancy waiting for decades. So, I needed a short-cut, something to give me an advantage. And the delightful thing about growing up in a dynastic household was that there were goods and tools around that might just provide that.

There were risks, of course.

Firstly, no one was going to let me take them. So, I’d have to steal them. But the heaven’s look fondly on those who are bold and daring. (Quite literally. Those who tend to the loom of fate have a long, thankless task and are happy to reward those who provide for something more exciting for them to oversee than another day of farming or making the same simple goods over and over again).

Secondly, if I made a mistake then I could wind up dead or crippled.

I really wouldn’t let any child of mine – or just in my care – attempt this. So, I’m a hypocrite to do it myself; but to be fair, at least I know what I’m doing.

I might have a child’s impulse control as well. It’s hard to say how much that’s affecting me.

The night I was waiting for was the third of an extended gala hosted by the Tepet Demarol household. For more than a week, the estate was inundated with guests from other families – every Great House was represented, more than half of them by Exalted and the others by rising mortal relatives who were trusted to represent their betters in important affairs.

The result of this was of course that the servants were being worked hard keeping up with the demands of lavish hospitality and entertainment. Almost everyone was working late and while the sun had long since set, hoarded light crystals and expensive fireworks turned the evening into something like day.

We children had played our parts earlier but no one actually expected us to be around as the evening turned towards some more mature entertainments. We’d been seen and recognised as potential future members of House Tepet, names and faces to be remembered when marriages were discussed in ten years or so and that was the main thing.

And thus, as even Medra was nodding off in her chair in the nursery, I was waiting.

I’d taken a nap earlier, missing the main dinner. That was excusable since Doreg and Hunt were serving as cupbearers to Demarol and Yrina respectively. The household was aware of the divisions among the children so keeping Nalan and I away from that was something they were happy to arrange. No one wanted a spat among children to mar the occasion. (Well, it might have amused some of the guests, but it would have humiliated my adoptive parents in public and that would have had serious repercussions).

Poor Medra was getting visibly older. Her hair had gone from steel grey to almost the same shade as Opiha’s, while more lines were drawn in the skin of her face.

I climbed out of my bed on soft feet and watched the elderly woman to see if she reacted. There was no sign of anything, but I couldn’t assume anything. Picking up a spare blanket that was ready in case any of we children started feeling the cold, I carried it over to her and draped it over her. I couldn’t reach her shoulders, but it covered her lap and she didn’t wake.

Good. I’d swapped her evening cup of wine for something a little stronger that Usha had set aside for herself. The younger nurse wouldn’t be able to make anything of it if she did catch on – she wasn’t supposed to have the flask of reinforced wine in the first place.

The tunic I wore to bed was a very dark blue, chosen for this reason. I tiptoed to the doorway and quietly slipped on some similarly shaded pants and slippers. Sliding the door to one side I peeked out and waited for a firework to cast light across the children’s courtyard.

The shadow cast by the willow as the sky lit up briefly seemed to dance, giving me qualms but it seemed that no one was there.

Good enough. I kept to the porch as I walked quickly down to the corner. I had an excuse this far – a late night trip to the water closet. But once I went past it, anyone catching me would know I had no real excuse for being out. If there was some emergency, I should have woken Medra after all.

I went past that threshold and shivered. I could still turn back.

But no. I’d made up my mind. I reached the gate to the courtyard; it was pulled closed but not latched or barred.

Crossing the threshold, I didn’t look back.

The bright lights of the crystals cast deep shadows, not all of them in line to be lit during the moments that fireworks boomed and flared above. I used a scarf to hide my light hair and went around the kitchens – which would be heaving – and the gardens where the bulk of the festivities were taking place.

There were three routes into the manse. The garden entrance was going to be in full view of part of the party, some of the serious drinkers were there. And the servants’ entrance was far too likely to be busy.

That left the riskiest under normal circumstances as the route that I would take.

I went up the stairs that I remembered being carried up years ago to have my first sight of Tepet Yrina and the twin’s mother. I’d never gone through the front entrance of the ziggurat but I had a rough idea of the layout.

The broad steps were suitable for ceremony and there had been entertainers playing music on them under Nolly’s direction earlier. But with the fireworks, that had ceased and now they were abandoned and eerily so.

I hastened up the steps and reached the ornamental barrier. It wouldn’t have stopped a particularly lazy cat, but the chains nonetheless marked a new threshold. To enter the manse without the express consent of one of the Exalted of the household was utterly forbidden. Servants were vetted carefully before being admitted and unexalted family members were usually allowed in only for specific reasons.

The door was closed, but that was alright, I wasn’t going to risk it.

Hidden from easy view from outside, there was a low moat of water – just a few inches deep and surrounding the ziggurat in a rigidly precise square. It served as a drain for water running down it during the rain, and also to channel some of the water-aspected essence flows into the proper paths to create a martial hearthstone. I’d expected as much.

And while I’d never seen it before, I found a drain right where my own knowledge of geomancy said it should be. The flat steps of the ziggurat didn’t drain cleanly, they were slightly angled to slope back towards the next level upwards, so the water had to escape somehow, and while something the diameter of a man’s arm would have sufficed for that, the geomancy demanded more.

I wriggled up into the drain and found it was just wide enough for my shoulders… but barely. Another season or two and this would be impossible.

As it was, I couldn’t so much crawl up the drain as slither, bracing my back and knees alternately as I scaled it. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained for the past two weeks so it wasn’t slippery, but I would have to do something with my clothes after this. The smell would be obvious.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, I reached a grate at the top and gave it a little jiggle. It moved easily and pushing it up gave me a brief start as it came free. I almost lost my grip but I managed to brace myself. I was exposed to the light of the fireworks as I climbed painfully out and stretched, but fortunately no other building in the estate was high enough to see this platform easily.

I replaced the drain and crawled along the platform, minimising the chance of being spotted from the ground. Doors and platforms pierced the manse in several places, providing access to the interior. Most of the rooms were only accessible from the outside if you were above the ground level. Only the uppermost chamber was accessible by the stair that bored its way up from the lowest point of the structure. Otherwise one reached the manse’s individual rooms by climbing the stairs engraved in the side and walking around on these platforms.

The room I wanted was on this level, but it was the furthest from the drain outlet, because of course it was.

Actually, it was furthest because of that – if the drain was clogged, not only was it bad for the essence flows but it could cause minor flooding and the most important person residing here wanted their room safe from that.

Finally, I reached the door. It was mostly glass in a wooden frame. Not exactly security conscious, but I guessed that the demands of getting light into it took precedence in the eyes of the resident. It was locked of course.

There are many arcane and clever ways to open a locked door. Spells, charms, clever ploys with pieces of metal. I had none of these.

What I did have was a solid appreciation for how you build a door like this one. The framework holding the glass in place was modular so you could remove the glass without having to disassemble the entire door to replace a cracked pane. Using a butterknife, I pried two of the supports away and removed one of the panes. That didn’t leave a lot of space but it wasn’t much narrower than the drain.

I slid the glass through first, then replaced the segments. Unless someone was looking for it, the chances were that no one would notice that the glass was missing in this poor light.

Getting my shoulders through the small space took some wriggling but I managed it in the end. Once inside, I hid the glass behind a cabinet and looked around. From here I didn’t know exactly where I was going.

The furniture was sturdy and practical, not what one might expect for someone of wealth and power but Tepet Demarol was Exalted. When your anima banner can shred cotton in a moment of inattention, you don’t want to surround yourself with delicacies. No, you want furnishings that can take some punishment without showing it.

Thus, the bulk of the furnishings were heavy woods or stone, with stuffed leather where it needed to be softened. The mattress and the blankets on the large four-poster bed might be the most fragile thing here.

I was looking for his medicine cabinet.

Not specifically for medicine, you understand. As far as I knew, my adoptive father had no particular interest in that field of study. He probably kept a few simple remedies around for practical reasons, but gossip among the servants was that it was also where he kept other things that had similarities in terms of how they should be stored.

Such as drugs and medications that were very heavily controlled to keep them out of the wrong hands. Dynasts didn’t have to worry about such trifling considerations, for them anything that wasn’t actively heretical was merely expensive, and Demarol entertained on this scale regularly. I am quite sure he had a stash to supply his guests with even their most eccentric demands even if he didn’t indulge himself.

And there were a couple of likely substances that I could make excellent use of, if he had them. And if I used them correctly.

Of course, any medication can become a poison if misused. But you can drown in water, so moderation isn’t exactly something that only applies in esoterica.

I checked the cabinets carefully, almost dismissing those that weren’t locked at first. But he might just be casual about securing that sort of thing. I honestly didn’t know so I had to try every room.

His wardrobe was extensive, but that wasn’t a surprise. However, nothing in them seemed to be what I was looking for. It might be in one of the two locked cupboards or perhaps those that were just too high for me unless I moved a chair to get at them. That would be a problem, but not necessarily one I couldn’t solve…

Then I heard a laugh from outside. Was someone coming here?

I dived under the bed and almost brained myself on a shallow chest that was stored under there. I barely spotted it before I hit it and caught myself on the edge of the frame instead. Rolling to one side I got myself into the shadows cast by the frame and the long drapes just before the door opened.

Two voices, one of them familiar.

“I’m sure that you will enjoy this,” I heard my father say. “It’s a fresh shipment I just received from Arjuf and before that from Paragon. My supplier swears by it.”

“I look forward to it.”

I didn’t recognise the second voice, but I did recognise the drapes being pulled aside. If he looked down here, I was sure to be spotted…

With a brisk movement, the chest was pulled out from under the bed, the rattling of a chain that secured it to the floor hiding the sound of my heart beating louder at the risk of discovery.

Above me I heard people settling onto the bed. There was a click as if something was being unlocked and an appreciative sigh. It couldn’t be this, could it?

I wriggled around and peeked out through the drapes. The chest was open and while I couldn’t see inside it or what was being removed, it didn’t take a genius to add up the sounds I was hearing.

A moment later there was the snap of a fire-starter and I could smell something exotic in the air. Something that spoke to me of the jungles of the south-east, of the ancient centres of civilisation there that predated the histories of the last age, much less that of the more savage and diminished age we lived within.

I swallowed, feeling a wave of homesickness for the city on the northern edge of that great verdant mass, the ancient towers and workshops I had hacked out from jungles and restored somewhat in those days that it seemed that we might be able to turn back the tide of darkness.

That city might live on, somewhere in the Creation that was, the Creation that I had lost. But now all it consisted of was a cursed ruin, bare of any inhabitants for seven and a half centuries, tended by crumbling automatons long overdue for maintenance and repair.

More weight settled onto the mattress above me and I pressed myself against the floor. I was worried about nothing though, the springs above were more than enough to keep the mattress from contacting me.

And then I saw a foot connect with the chest and slide it casually back under the bed.

They hadn’t even closed it! Much less locked it!

Bless the spiders of the pattern, who reward audacity! I crawled over to the chest, not caring that it was almost lightless down here.

Delicate probing showed me that the chest was stacked high, probably with several trays to hold layer after layer of small bottles and packages. Tracing what was inside each would be hard, but I wasn’t looking for any one thing specifically – there were quite a number of substances that were merely stimulants to the Chosen of the Dragons but would have far more profound effects on a mortal.

The most likely thing to find would be Celestial Cocaine but there wasn’t a chance in all Malfeas that I’d touch that even if it was the only likely prospect I found. It was addictive as all hell and I didn’t have the body mass to handle weaning myself off a physical and spiritual dependency.

And assuming I could shrug off the psychological dependency would be reckless too, I suppose.

Doing this once might be worthwhile but trying it a second time would almost certainly arouse suspicion, and I doubted Demarol would put up with a bastard adoptee who had a drug habit. Even if I Exalted outright, I’d probably be quietly put aside. That sort of weakness was intolerable.

Bottles I set aside, carrying liquid any real distance would be too chancy without taking the entire bottle and that would be obvious as a theft. No, I wanted a powder or a solid where I could wrap a tiny dose in paper to make my escape.

I most certainly was not going to try to advance my enlightenment further right under the nose of my adoptive father.

The mattress began to rise and fall above me in a rhythmic fashion that would have hinted to someone far more sheltered than I what my father and his guest were doing. Well, I suppose it was a distraction. I needed something along those lines.

Picking two possible packages out of the chest, and making careful note of their proper places, I squirmed over to the side of the bed nearest the door and examined the markings on the packets in the scant light that came through. The markings meant nothing to me, alas. But that didn’t really surprise me – probably Demarol or his supplier had a private code they used. Only an utter idiot would write the name of a technically illegal substance on a package, after all. It would be hard to claim that you had no idea what the actual contents were if a Magistrate decided to try to actually hold you to the law.

Afterall, the Scarlet Empress might actually be displeased enough to actually impose the legal consequences if you didn’t have some excuse lined up. It had happened… three or four times in her reign, if I recalled correctly.

I didn’t recognise the contents of the first package when I unsealed it. The second was October Mist, which would explain the smell in the air. Aromatic and aphrodisiac, completely useless to me.

Painstakingly I crawled back to the chest and replaced the packets, selecting two more and then repeated the examinations.

The first was what I’d expected: Celestial Cocaine. I was very very careful to hold my breath until that was wrapped again. I’d seen mortals kill themselves during my earliest days after Exaltation, in the drug dens of Nexus. I’d worked there after my Exaltation and more than a few men and women thought that they could manage the ride in exchange for opening them up to their essence and gain the opportunity to apprentice with sorcerers or other craftsmen who demanded enlightened apprentices.

The only one I hadn’t seen driven to mad addiction and death probably would have ended up that way, although I’d have been pleased if he was wrong. Instead, his master had called up a demon and deluded himself that he could bind it, rather than bargain with it.

The fool hadn’t believed that the bindings hinged on the surrender oaths of the Yozi, tying their creations to serve the Exalted who had conquered them.

It had not been a good afternoon. I’d been much younger and less experienced then.

Well, not younger than I was now. That would have been ridiculous.

It was after that that I received the invitation from my first sifu in the ancient and illegal sect of the Golden Janissaries.

I shook my head, making a mental note to poke around Nexus in fourteen or fifteen years or so, should the opportunity arise. It would be interesting if a younger version of myself was there and if nothing else I could deal with the demon and maybe make some useful connections.

The last packet was a paste for burns. I have no idea why Demarol kept that with the rest but I put it back anyway.

One more try produced a packet of Ocean Bloom Pills. They’d have been ideal… an extremely mild hallucinogen that had enlightening aspects in mortals. A shame they were pills, and as such, that Demarol would almost certainly notice if I took one.

I still had options though, even just on the top tray, so I set them down and then checked the next one.

Oh, you idiot, I thought of the man above. I hope you’re not taking this.

It was Raksha Dust, something traded occasionally from the bordermarches outside of Creation. It wasn’t very habit forming, but because it was made – somehow, I had never got the specifics – through the interactions of wyld gossamers and the flows of elemental essence around the four outlying poles, it could have unpredictable consequences for Elementals or for Terrestrial Exalted.

Ironically, though, it was one of the safer drugs for mortals to use to enlighten themselves. Illegal and expensive for exactly that reason.

If an Immaculate Monk found out about this, Tepet Demarol would by rights suffer some stinging public denunciations. Probably not enough to cost him control of this manse, but he might very well find out that the invitations he received would be cut severely, particularly from more rigidly inclined Houses. Sesus, Memnon and Cynis would be alright, but the Cathak, Ledaal and the rest of the Tepet might cut him dead socially until it was forgotten for some juicier scandals.

Well, I couldn’t spare him that risk without outing my presence here, but his recklessness would serve me well. I took a fold of paper from my tunic and tapped out a tiny quantity of the Raksha Dust onto it before sealing the packet. Folding up the paper several times to contain the dust I tucked it away and then wiggled back to the chest where I replaced the packet and made sure everything was as I remembered it.

With that done, all that remained was to move to a comparatively sheltered spot under the headboard and wait for the activity above me to die down. I was tired since even after a nap it was well after my bedtime, and the scent of the October Mist had me sweating for some reason.

It seemed like forever before the two in the bed above me settled down. Either it was my imagination or Demarol had the stamina of a randy lion. Probably a mix of the latter and of the drug, I guessed.

Finally, after I caught myself yawning, I heard their breath steady down and the mattress stopped bouncing.

I lay still and counted my heartbeat. Up to one hundred, down to one hundred.

When there was still no suspicious noise I crept out from under the bed and stuck to the shadows as best I could. There was considerable risk in taking a look at the pair in the bed, but if they were just snuggling rather than asleep then going right for the door was far too risky.

Finally, I found a place where the bedpost would cover me and slowly edged out just far enough to squint with one eye.

The pair lay still save for a gentle movement of their chests. Demarol lay on top of his bed-partner and I tried to blot from my memory far more view of his buttocks than I wanted. But it seemed that he, at least, had no view of anything but the pillows.

Working my way around the room I risked another look at the face of the other person in the bed. Light hair, somewhat androgynous… I wasn’t sure if it was a man or woman, come to think of it. The voice hadn’t been clearly one or the other and I wasn’t getting close enough to check.

Their eyes were closed though, which was the main thing.

I crawled out of the hole I’d left in the door and had to force myself not to head back to the drain. No, that would be utter folly. Instead I reached back in, found the glass and carefully brought it back outside.

The butter knife worked the fittings loose again, although every faint creak or scrape had my heart in my throat. At last I had the glass back in place though and I patted it gently to be sure it was safe.

Okay, now I could make my escape. I crawled back to the top of the drain. One last display of fireworks, the grandest and largest so far lit up the night just before I scrambled down. It was immense and for more than a minute the sky was multi-hued, with spirals, flowers and blazing wheels of light above me.

I froze, pressed myself to the ground and prayed not to be noticed.

Either someone answered, or everyone was too busy looking up at the fireworks to look at the manse. If it was the latter then they’d probably wrecked their night vision though. With a sigh, I slid into the drain and slithered down it. At least gravity was on my side this time.

At the bottom I dipped myself into the shallow water to wash the smell of October Mist off. Wet clothes I could explain, that scent not so much.

I’d taken only a few steps away from the pond before I realised that I was being an idiot. I was dripping everywhere, leaving a clear trail.

I found a shadowy corner and wrung my tunic out, careful to check that the precious paper I was carrying was still dry. Pulling the tunic back on, I removed my pants and wrung them out too, then shook as much water off my shoes as I could.

From the sounds, guests would be coming by this way soon, with servants detailed to lead them back to their quarters in the appropriate courtyards. There was no way I dared be caught here and no time for anything better.

Slinging my pants over my shoulder, I dashed bare-legged back to the gate of the children’s courtyard and slipped inside, closing the door behind me. I almost slammed it in my urgency – I was losing my head with nerves now that I was so close to success – and stopped myself at the last moment.

Leaning on the gate I took deep, steadying breaths and looked out. It was dark now, without the fireworks to add light. A few lanterns provided a bare minimum of light but since they were untended overnight, they were few and suspended where any accident wouldn’t set fire to anything.

Satisfied that I was alone, I padded my way to the water closet and slid inside.

There was every possibility that if I tried to hide the Raksha dust in the nursery that someone would find it. So, I’d need to take it now. Fortunately, the water closet was one place where we had a lantern – suspended above a basin of water. I opened out the paper and judged the quantity by eye. It wasn’t as if I could use scales to weigh it.

I guessed there was a full adult dose, maybe half again a full dose. Too much to risk, even if mortals generally had no huge issue. A third of a full dose would be enough, perhaps too much.

On reflections I divided the contents of the paper into three tiny piles and then divided one again into two. A sixth should be a quarter or less of a full dose. The rest I would discard.

It was obscenely wasteful, I noted. I was throwing away scores of obols worth of the stuff. Some families wouldn’t see that much money at a time in their entire lives. But there was no hiding place that I could be sure inquisitive children wouldn’t find it - and then potentially sample it themselves.

(I have discovered many times that bloodhounds have nothing on small children when it comes to finding hiding places).

I’d always expected to use whatever I found here, so I’d prepared in advance. There was a small cabinet in the antechamber to the actual toilet part of the room and when I switched Medra’s wine for Usha’s I took the actual wine and hid it here.

No one would be too suspicious about one of the staff here hiding something here to drink during a gala. For that matter, I was sure I’d seen Usha use the hiding place before. Living in a dynastic nursery was an education in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Sure enough, the flask was here and I used my fingers to transfer my chosen dose of Raksha Dust into it, shaking the wine to mix it in each time. Diluting the drug in wine would soften it further – although I might not manage the entire contents of the flask. On reflection I put another pinch of the dust in and then swept the rest onto the paper and poured it down the hole. Good luck to anyone wanting to find out if anything had been tipped down there.

The paper I tore up into tiny shreds and scattered down the hole as well. There was a decent chance of no one noticing until it was covered in excrement. All I’d need was for it to pass unnoticed until the usual morning visits were done with... probably.

I shook the flask further and then opened it. Well, here it was. Time to see if I’d accomplished anything at all last night…

Tipping it back I sipped on the wine. It wasn’t all that strong, Medra didn’t really indulge much. Safe enough for me to have it. I might be a bit dehydrated later but…

My eyes felt like they bulged as the wine hit my stomach. “Oh!” I gasped.

I’d never actually tried Raksha Dust – it was unwise for a Terrestrial Exalt, as I’d mentioned.

My insides felt ablaze and when I felt for my essence, the motes seemed to flow through my fingers like water.

I’d barely taken one swallow of the wine. I couldn’t have had that much!

Was something wrong with the wine? My legs didn’t seem to be up to holding me up any more. I slumped against the wall, mind working frantically.

No, the wine was about right. I’d had a sip or two before, we all had. It was tacitly winked at that older children slipped their juniors just enough to start their education in social drinking. Granted, I’d had half a cup at most and nodded off almost immediately, but this was pretty similar stuff…

No, I must have made a mistake with the Raksha Dust, I decided.

Dammit, dammit!

I crawled to the water hole and poured all the wine down it. Leaving any for someone to investigate would be idiocy now. Tossing the flask aside I gazed down into the pit. Every pulse of my heart sent flares of colour across my vision.

There was nothing for it. I reached down my throat with two fingers and tried to make myself gag.

I could practically feel my wings again. It had been so long since I’d flown…

No, focus, dammit.

I couldn’t have said if it was the artifact wings I was remembering or other, more spiritual wings I’d developed later.

I bit on my fingers, enough for pain to focus me.

Blood tasted like iron in my mouth.

I remembered the first time I’d seen the armies of the dead marching in array. Thousands strong, advancing on Whitewall. I’d taken a direct hit from one of their essence cannons and been thrown through a fir tree. The fractured ribs had taken several hours to knit, even with Exalted healing and medical care from a competent surgeon…

I have to get it to-geth-huagh!

With a spasm, my stomach finally took the hint and acid bile preceded a gout of wine exploding out of my mouth and into the waste hole.

I shook, spat and then another clench heralded a second stream of vomit, parts of my supper. Cold trails down my leg suggested that the other end of my digestive system had let go too.

This had been a bloody stupid idea, I realised as I sat on the floor and darkness grew around me. Impatience had come close to killing me.

When I woke my vision was swimming. For a moment I thought the entire experience had been a dream.

Perhaps more than just last night, come to think of it.

I was in a cosy bed, under the blankets and feeling perhaps a little dry in the throat. Oh, and wearing a nappy.

If the last two or three years had been a dream then it had been unusually vivid.

I closed my eyes and blinked them again and again until I could make sense of what I saw.

Oh, it was just the ceiling. That was much less alarming than I’d expected. I sighed. Okay, the nursery ceiling. I recognised some of the knots in the wood.

Two hands took hold of one of mine and I turned my head to see Medra leaning over me. “Little Alina?” the old woman asked me in a thin, weary voice. “Can you hear me?”

I cleared my throat and croaked rather than spoke, then lifted my head and dropped it back onto the pillows. It was as near to a nod as I thought that I could manage.

She closed her hands more tightly. “You silly girl.” There were actual tears forming at the corner of her eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

I couldn’t have replied easily so I said nothing, just coughed and tried to get some moisture in my mouth.

Recovering herself, Medra helped me sit up enough to sip from a cup of milk, something easy on my throat. Once I had emptied the cup she turned away and blotted at her eyes with her apron. “You worried us very much, child.”

“I’m sorry,” I managed. I had failed, miserably and abjectly. I still wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t going to pretend anything else. The Raksha Dust had been wasted, as had all the risks I’d taken.

Medra hugged me. “You don’t know how frightened we all were when we found you were missing. And then again when Nalan found you in the toilets. Promise me you’ll wake me next time if you find I’m asleep when you wake. No matter what.”

I patted her reassuringly on the back and felt her cringe at the contact. “Medra, are you alright.”

“Nothing I didn’t deserve,” she sobbed. “Now promise me.”

“I promise,” I agreed. I’d never even considered the consequences for her of my sneaking out. Medra, the woman who’d cared for me first and foremost, ever since I was taken away from my mother. What utter selfishness I’d shown.

A wave of shame engulfed me. I must never do this again. Exalted or mortal, enlightened or not, I had to be better than that. Being so arrogant and self-absorbed had been the downfall of far grander people than I. I’d failed to learn from their examples so now I must learn from my own idiocy.

“I promise,” I said again, moving my hands up and hugging her around her shoulders where, thankfully, she wasn’t as tender.

She sniffed and let me go at last. “Well, it’s a lesson we should remember, I suppose. The other children have been very worried. Nalan had vapours and was in the next bed all of yesterday. He might still be there, but your father insisted he come out and be his cupbearer the same way Doreg had.”

I nodded. It wasn’t truly heartless of Demarol, making such appearances was not just a duty for us, it was something that would pay off for us in years to come, meeting and being seen by other important people. “I should let him know that I’m alright.”

Medra pressed me down onto the pillows. “You are not alright, and you are staying right here in bed until we’re sure you’ve fully recovered.”

With a sigh I let her have her way. I owed her far too much.

“I’ll let Ishah know that you’ve woken up. Now don’t leave the bed until we’re back.”

“I promise.” I honestly didn’t feel like I could have done much more than sit up anyway. Then a thought struck me. They said Nalan had had to go to bed for a whole day. “Wait, how long have I been asleep?”

“Two days,” she told me.

“…two whole days?” Good grief.

“Well, more than that now, it’s almost lunchtime.”

I must have really done a number on myself. I lay back and closed my eyes.

Had I damaged my essence with what I did? I was tempted to test it out but that was the sort of thinking that had got me into this trouble to begin with. No, I’d wait until I was fully recovered.

Until then I’d rest properly. Perhaps I should just go to sleep again.

It seemed like I’d barely closed my eyes when the door opened. I was about to look at Ishah but before I could move, I heard an unwelcome voice.

“She’s probably not woken up. Medra’s old and was imagining it,” Hunt declared. “She might never wake up.”

What was she even doing here? The three older children had moved out into rooms on the upper level of this building, one for Hunt and one for the twins, a while back. Only Opiha and I still slept here unless someone (usually Nalan) was ill.

“No! No!” Opiha sounded shrill. “She’ll definitely wake up.”

“Well she hasn’t, look.” And that was Doreg. “I bet she’s been as ill as Nalan gets but she was hiding it and now it’s all hitting her at once.”

“She’s not going to stay asleep forever,” insisted Opiha.

“Well of course not.” Hunt paused. “She’ll die eventually.”

“No!”

“Look.” And then a finger poked at my face. “She’s not moved at all.”

Right, so much for being good. I waited until the finger poked again and then turned my head and snapped my teeth.

“OOOOAAAAAA!!” Hunt screamed, yanking a bloody finger away from my face.

Doreg went white as a sheet and backed away, pointing. “She’s died and turned into a hungry ghost! She’s here for our blood!”

Well, I wasn’t going to miss a chance like that. “Blood...”

With a scream, Doreg and Hunt bolted for the door. Opiha just stood there trembling.

I stretched and smiled at the white-haired girl. “Oh, hello Opiha. I had the strangest dream.”

“D-dream?”

I nodded.

“Y-you’re not dead?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then I had my arms fully of a crying little girl. Truly the wages of sin are suffering.

Apparently, my definition of recovered was very different from Medra’s. The gala had completely finished but I was still confined not only to the nursery but to my bed.

I really wanted to be good, but it had been another three days since I woke up. I hadn’t had lessons and, in fact, I hadn’t been allowed to do anything.

Also, I could apparently only be fed nourishing soup. I was beginning to think Ishah and Medra were punishing me.

Finally, my patience broke and I waited until they were gone and started to do what exercise I could without leaving the bed. I wasn’t technically breaking any instructions since I wasn’t leaving the bed, right? And a little exercise would tire me out, making it easier to rest later, right?

I was watching my limits though. If nothing else, spending several days in bed had left me wobbly and off-balance, so I couldn’t do much at first. But after a nap, I was able to do a little more the second time.

Twice was probably as much as I could get away with, and the second nap was fitful so I figured I’d slept myself out for the day.

“I feel much better,” I assured Medra when she cleaned me up after my soup. “Are you sure I can’t get out of bed?”

“Not just yet,” she informed me firmly. “You’re still looking pale and I don’t want to take any chances. You do understand, don’t you? We don’t want you collapsing again.”

“No,” I conceded. It wasn’t like I could tell her why I’d passed out. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure myself about all the details, but I’d be in immense trouble if they found out even what I did know.

And while I’d been left alone through most of the day while Usha was on duty, Medra set up that evening with evidently no intention of letting me out of her sight.

“Can I sit up and meditate?”

The old woman gave me a tolerant look. “Well, I suppose so.” Of course, I’m fairly sure that she and the other nannies thought I was just playing at meditating and would fall asleep any time I tried. Which was mostly untrue.

(Actually, if it did put me to sleep until they were ready to let me out of bed, that would be perfectly acceptable. I wouldn’t be bored if I was asleep.)

Sitting cross legged on the sheets, I closed my eyes and reached out.

Every one of us has essence. Every one of us is made of essence, for the simple reason that everything in creation is constructed of essence. Everything we do is manipulation of essence, on some level.

But direct control of it is another matter. Direct control of it can magnify everything we do. It’s not a simple feat, and it’s limited both in the degree of control you have and the magnitude you can draw essence from not only yourself but Creation around you.

I’d managed the first step, touching the essence of my own body. Alas, having learned as an Exalt, the techniques I knew were for the most part useless to me. Only martial arts charms were open to me out of the tricks I’d learned in my lifetime, and only the very least of these.

I could reach out though, I could isolate a mote and manipulate it. That was a start. It was something, for if you can use one then you can use more.

The question was If my recklessness had cost me that…

Well, I’d have to live with it.

And so, I reached out, into the complexity of life, and reached for the simplest and most common denominator. The energy flows through me.

It was hard to hold my focus, I was so nervous. For a moment I thought that I’d lost it.

And then, a moment later I felt a mote within my grasp.

A mote that flowed and shifted as I willed it.

I had it.

I hadn’t wrecked my own control, crippling myself.

The relief was such that I almost fell out of my trance. I’d have to work on my control again, using your essence isn’t much use if it’s all you can do. But I hadn’t made a complete mess of everything.

I exhaled, long and slow. Letting go of tension that I had all but internalized. It was not as bad as I had thought, not as bad as I had feared.

Sinking into the trance again I measured and judged my essence.

A sharp laugh burst out of me.

Oh, the irony.

There was so much of it.

It could only mean one thing: I’d broken through onto the next plateau. Through the luck of the devil, I’d failed my way to success. Maybe there had been more Raksha Dust than I thought or perhaps mixing it with wine was exactly the wrong or right thing to do.

I had deeper and finer control than before. Deeper reserves. If I could master them then I would be able to resume my study of arts that lacked the physical demands of Five Dragon or Crimson Pentacle Blade. There were two such that I hadn’t been able to attempt, but now that barrier was irrelevant. In fact, there were several arts I might even be able to push into intermediate levels now, given the time.

“That’s enough,” Medra told me sternly. I opened my eyes and saw her glaring down at me, serious despite the twinkle in her eyes. “If you’re laughing then this isn’t meditation. And I want you properly rested if you’re going to be allowed out of bed tomorrow, little Alina.”

“Yes Medra,” I agreed. Tomorrow, eh? I let her lay me down and cover me with the blankets. I could wait until tomorrow. Now that I knew the opportunities that I’d opened up at such a risk, I could wait as long as I needed to. Even if the Dragons never chose me in this lifetime, I had the tools to defend myself and – just perhaps – to make a difference.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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Sidebar: House Tepet

House Tepet is one of the eleven Great Houses that currently make up the Realm’s Scarlet Dynasty, the extended family that - through blood, marriages and adoption - includes the majority of the approximately 10,000 Terrestrial Exalted native to the Blessed Isle. While not one of the largest Great Houses; numbering almost a thousand Exalted and several times that in their mortal relatives, House Tepet is comfortably in the middle-ground in terms of both population and of the number of notably powerful Exalted.

The house is descended from Tepet, a legion commander during the third and fourth centuries who was an Imperial Consort between RY 362 and his mysterious disappearance in RY 371. Shortly thereafter, Tepet’s five adult children were granted the status of a Great House along with considerable estates and imperial favour, making them a useful counter to some of the Empress’ elder children and their ambitions. (Tepet himself had been prominent in crushing House Manosque after their failed coup in RY 244). Such politics play no small part in the reason that only eleven of the twenty-three Great Houses declared over the centuries of the Scarlet Empress’ reign still exist.

The Tepet are mostly centred around the city of Lord’s Crossing and the prefecture that takes its name from that city, which has the almost unique status of being a direct dominion of a Great House. Almost half of the house treat the great fortified manse at the heart of Lord’s Crossing as their permanent residence, even though they may not see it for years. In addition, five major off-shoots form distinct households elsewhere in the dominion with only the sixth and smallest branch of the House settling outside Lord’s Crossing entirely. Tepet’s two daughters Vergus and Marek established the first and largest of these, although Vergus’ influence was curbed by her own daughter Tilis forming her own distinct household.

Together with the main household, the Vergus, Marek and Tilis households have a very strong martial tradition, with the majority of their number serving as officers in the legions. As a result of the significant number of senior Tepet officers able to exert patronage and other influence, five Imperial Legions (the 5th, 8th, 38th, 42nd and the 43rd) have their senior ranks dominated by Dragon-blooded and mortal officers from House Tepet and from affiliated patrician houses. Other legions have a much smaller presence, but the Tepet aren’t so isolationist as to steer all their younger members into their ‘traditional’ legions.

The Berel and Nerigus households, descended from the elder children of Tepet’s youngest son Jyuko, are both more focused on mercantile affairs and developing the wealth of their estates on the edges of Lord’s Crossing dominion than on military careers; but even those Tepet who don’t make the Legions their lives have often served for some time. The most recent household was established, by Tepet Demarol, who retired from a successful military career to Juche prefecture, the playground of the Blessed Isle’s wealthiest Exalted, over a hundred years ago. While the Demarol household is by far the smallest and most far-flung of House Tepet’s branches, Demarol and his wife wield great influence through the social and political connections they’ve made at lavish galas and during expensive hunting trips. This diversification is significantly boosting the power of the Tepet, something not welcomed by their rivals.
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Some of this is canon to Exalted, some is me filling in gaps.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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A/N: Yeah, and since SD apparently doesn't allow editing it'll stay broken. The spoiler was just stating that the sidebar was partly canonical information and partly extrapolation to fill in gaps.

Ascending Water

My return to the classroom wasn’t exactly triumphant. Instead I was put on the spot and questioned on topics that I had missed classes on due to my confinement.

The moral lesson of this was that Creation would not care for any weakness on my part and I must hit the ground running to make up for any such failings. That didn’t make it any less excruciating to have to stand up and endure the smug faces of Hunt and Doreg every time I didn’t answer correctly.

There was no surprise that I was unfamiliar with the reading – I had been denied books while I recuperated. Some people would say that reading was my third delight in life, behind crafting with my hands and the practise of martial arts. And ahead of siring more children.

Frankly, the other three were not delights, they were simply absolute requirements if I was to survive and thrive in my past life. Reading is my first and foremost joy in life.

But the sad fact was, no one trusted a baby with books any more than they did tools. And I was very much on the other side of the child-making equation right now. I had given up trying to guess how I’d feel about it when the time came. Presumably hormones would kick in and I know all too well how much that can change a youngster’s thinking.

Assuming that any conscious thought takes place on the subject in the head of an adolescent, which is quite a bit of credit to give them.

I was not looking forward to puberty.

But yes. The martial arts were the only one of those pastimes that I had had even the least chance to indulge in since I was reborn, and that with almost no chance to actually apply it practically. Working through kata can build reflexes but only sparring can polish those skills and I was still far too young to be given any chance to do that except under highly constrained and regulated circumstances.

Plus, I wasn’t supposed to know half the arts I wanted to practise. It was frustrating.

The chance to read had been a great relief to me, but that too was circumscribed. The Realm had a healthy publishing industry with printing presses and the line to churn out scrolls covering any number of topics… but what they did not have was a great deal of creativity.

Virtually everything I read had been written centuries before and approved for publication largely because it held calculated messages – overt and covert – that supported the Realm’s policies and social structure. Even a work of fiction was designed to educate the intended audience into their proper place in society.

Thus, I was only permitted to read that narrow slice of literature aimed at young dynasts. Formulaic, for the most part, with tales of young and virtuous dynasts doing as they properly should and being rewarded by Exaltation.

I have two books, allegedly written three hundred years apart by entirely different authors, and with the exception of the names of places and characters they were almost word for word the same. I still don’t know if it was knowing plagiarism, someone ghost-writing their own work to make more money off it or just a blind lack of imagination on the part of the second author.

That may have had something to do with me sneaking into Demarol’s rooms and going through his medicine chest. Lack of new books to read makes Alina go crazy.

I would not be surprised if, assuming the Realm avoids the disasters of the next century or so, if I don’t somehow wind up with a hidden chest under my bed of illicit romance novels or such like.

(And yes, books brought in from outside the Blessed Isle are very much censured for inappropriate messages.)

I made some guesses about the contents of the book we’d been working our way through (the Dragon Knight of the Fire Mountains, if you care) based on the assumption that the sentiments and themes were puerile and repetitive. While I was wrong on some details, Sifu Shoku (who taught us literature as well as martial arts) was satisfied that I was being properly indoctrinated, even if I might not have actually read the book. I was allowed off with a reminder to get caught up on the chapters I’d missed as soon as possible.

Not exactly a punishment, since I would do that anyway. They might be predictable and unsophisticated, but they were all I had in terms of reading materials.

Nolly replaced Shoku at the head of the classroom, the shaven-headed man leaving the room as quickly as he could. He wasn’t formally a monk but my understanding was that he had trained with the Immaculate Order and still maintained some of their ways.

I had mixed feelings about Nolly as a teacher. Maths was fine, but music was not my strongest subject.

“We’ve been doing some more complicated problems lately,” she advised me brightly and started writing on the blackboard with chalk.

I exhaled in relief and Hunt did the same in disappointment. She knew that I was pretty good with numbers.

“Doreg and Nalan both managed this yesterday, so let’s see if you can manage it.” The woman finished drawing a triangle and some numbers along the two shorter sides. “What’s the length of this side,” she asked me, tapping the longer side with her chalk.

I made a face. Okay, one number was twice the other so… square root of five was…

I needed to try a couple of times to find that by trial and error but then all I had to do was multiply it by the shorter of the sides and there it was.

“You must have been cheating!” Hunt declared in outrage when I gave the answer. “Did Nalan tell you?”

“I didn’t!” he protested. “I wasn’t going to spend time talking about lessons.”

Nolly smacked the board with the flat of her hand. “Alina is correct, that’s the main point. And since you had to do some working out, I’m inclined to think that you did it alone. I must ask how you managed, since I haven’t discussed this with you, Alina?”

“Uh, I do listen when you talk to the others,” I pointed out. “So generally, by the time you teach me something, I’m hearing it for the second or third time. It helps.”

“I don’t recall discussing how to calculate a triangle before you fell ill,” the teacher mused. “Hmm. Well, there’s no argument with success. Now…” her eyes brightened. “Have you been practising your singing?”

I knew she’d get to this. She loved music, while maths was just a job to her. “No, teacher.”

Nolly tsked. “You could have done that in your bed, I would have thought. Anyway, let’s make a start on the March of the Thirty-Sixth Legion. How many of the verses do you remember?”

“Most of them,” I said dubiously. My memory wasn’t the weak point musically.

“Excellent. Everyone on the choruses, but Alina will carry the reverses.”

Nalan flinched, the poor boy was sat in front of me and he’d have to endure my warbling. I think it was positively painful for him.

With a mental apology to Nalan, I started to sing. I couldn’t see his face but the hunched shoulders told their own story and Nolly’s face was just as illustrative. Sifu Shoku seemed just as disappointed when he returned with a scroll.

“I think that more practise is required,” Nolly decided. “Come back here after martial arts practise and we’ll work harder on that.”

“Yes teacher.” What else could I say? There was no point complaining though. Nolly had no say in what she taught us, and even Tepet Demarol and Tepet Yrina were doing no more than having us tutored in what was expected for anyone aiming to be enrolled in formal schooling. Every child of any family with the ability to hire tutors was put through this and unless I was ever in a position to change all of the Realm’s education, I would never be able to alter this.

Nolly yielded the board to Shoku, who cleared her diagram from earlier and started marking numbers on the board. “We’ll refresh on the Third sutra of the Fall of the Golden Anathema,” he advised. “Alina, you missed the lessons on this so play close attention, this is your chance to catch up.”

Ironically, I knew this sutra very well. In the time that was and maybe would be again, I had rewritten it and published it as a more accurate version, marketing it as an ‘unedited version, based on certain pre-Contagion texts’. Oddly, there was considerable evidence that there had been copies of the Immaculate Texts in circulation back then that were more honest about the nature of the Anathema, so I’d attracted considerable support for the position in certain academic circles.

I’d also almost triggered a religious schism in the Immaculate Order and Peleps Deled had tried to murder me in broad daylight, which had been extremely entertaining. (Well, for me. He’d been rather less than pleased with the experience.) The ‘religious debate of Wallport’ had been recorded as a woodcut that I used on the second printing of my scrolls.

So, the main issue here, was remaining with the ‘official version’. Because if Deled tried to skewer me in this life then he would probably have no particular difficulty and the psychotically fervent monk would probably hesitate not in the least in eradicating even a child for heresy.

My seventh birthday was marked by the announcement by Tepet Demarol that we would be hosting another gala at the estate. Not to mark my birthday, of course, more because he’d only managed to find a convenient scheduling moment to invite several of the older and more distinguished members of House Tepet at the same point that summer. My father-in-the-eyes-of-the-law was not one to keep such a feat to himself.

There was no grand celebration of my birthday anyway, and I’d rather been anticipating this summer ever since Opiha and I had moved out of the nursery to share a room next to Hunt’s bedroom. There had been talk of us sharing a room but this had been decided against since Ishah had a pretty good idea that there would be violence, possibly involving hairbrushes, if that happened.

Besides, the reason I was anticipating the summer was that at its end, once Calibration was over, the three older children would be departing for their primary schools. I’d kind of miss Nalan but Doreg and Hunt’s absence would be more welcome, and it would leave me technically senior among the remaining children – even if that was just Opiha and the two newest babies. Hunt’s mother and Tepet Yrina had announced their own pregnancies last year and both delivered boys in the spring.

“The gala will be a fine chance for our youngsters to make their mark,” Demarol advised us as he visited to the children’s courtyard. He was addressing our teachers more than we youngsters, but we were there. “I am disappointed with Nalan’s writing, but he is at least a good singer. Between now and the departure ceremony, I want you to work on his writing and prepare a performance. Many of the House’s most distinguished members will be present, so making a good impression will open opportunities in the future.”

“Of course, sir.” Nolly bowed her head. “May I ask if you have a preferred piece?”

My lordly father (the jerk!) nodded. “General Arada will be joining us so it would be a very good time to honour him by singing of one of his deeds.

“The Wind Dancer’s Ascent?” suggested the teacher.

Demarol considered for a moment and then pointed at Nalan. “Do you know that, young Nalan?”

“Yes, grandfather.”

“You must be perfect then.” He looked at the rest of us. “I planned on three of you accompanying the guests and our older children on the hunting expedition on the third and fourth days of the gala, which will include camping overnight. Since Nalan is in need of extra lessons, that means…” He paused, eyeing the two of us. “Which if them is doing better in their classes?”

Sifu Shoku took a half-step forward. “I believe that Alina might be better able to squire for the guests.”

I almost managed to hide a disappointed look. What had I done to disappoint the Sifu that he’d throw me under a cart like that! Camping out in the woods on a hunting trip was not my idea of fun. And spending more time with distant relatives while expected to be seen but not heard would be miserable.

Most of all, I’d be stuck in close quarters with Hunt and Doreg unless I could convince one of the older children to shield me. Hmm, Icole would be back…

“Perhaps you are right.” Demarol looked around the courtyard and then down his nose at us. “Let us test the children’s familiarity with the matters that they should be aware of. Some simple questions, to make sure that they are not entirely ignorant.”

“Of course, lord Demarol.” Nolly clapped her hands to make sure we were all paying attention. “Children, please make the lord happy by answering quickly and clearly.”

“I hope that you’ve been paying attention to discussion of the gala.” My lawful father gazed at us. “Each of you name one of the Great Houses who will be represented among our guests.”

“Cynis!” exclaimed Hunt immediately, knowing her father’s house was heavily represented in Juche. It was a pretty safe bet they’d be attending – it was a rare social gathering they missed.

Doreg was almost as quick off the mark by claiming “Cathak,” just a moment before his twin offered: “Ragara.”

I thought Nalan’s guess was a bit better, House Ragara’s main focus – although like any house they had the sort of immensely diverse interests that naturally result from anything up to a thousand Dragon-Blooded pursuing their personal affinities – was banking and thus they would not wish to miss keeping close track of who was dealing with who. Galas like this one could have any number of unofficial business meetings that would set the agenda for financial and political matters over the next year.

I proposed House Nellens, and seeing that Opiha was hesitating, I caught her eye and touched the Tepet mon on the breast of my tunic.

“Tepet!” the white-haired girl exclaimed quickly.

“Well obviously!” exclaimed Doreg in apparent exasperation.

Demarol reached over and flicked the boy’s forehead with one finger. “And yet it’s correct. All of you are correct, in fact.”

“Weren’t we supposed to name Great Houses?” Hunt asked ingenuously. “I thought I heard Alina name a patrician family.”

Shoku hissed and tried to secure the girl but Demarol raised one hand and stilled the sifu immediately.

“The use of Great House is a specific legal term,” he reminded Hunt quietly, voice clipped and irritated. “The descendants of Her Scarlet Majesty’s consort Nellens were granted that status over three hundred years ago. Very much in the way that another consort had his own descendants elevated to be a Great House shortly previous… that would be our own House.” The last two words were all but hissed. “If I hear any remark of that kind around the guests then you may expect extremely swift consequences, granddaughter. And when I am done with you, I will move on to your mother, who has clearly paid far too little attention to keeping your tongue civil.”

Hunt was white-faced and wide-eyed by the end of the tongue-lashing. Nolly was cringing almost as much, while Shoku seemed resigned. I wouldn’t be surprised if they faced punishment as well for that conduct by a child in their charge.

“My second question,” continued Demarol, “Is which Great Houses have declined to accept invitations to the gala. I will tell you now that I have invited members of all eleven. One at a time – Hunt, you are first.

“Sesus,” she gasped.

For a moment silence hung and then the lord of the household inclined his head. Like the Cathak, the Sesus were a predominantly Fire-aspected house with a long martial tradition to rival that of House Tepet. And unlike us, they were descended from one of the Scarlet Empress’ children, a point they liked to rub in. Being snubbed by them was no great surprise.

“Doreg.”

The boy considered carefully. “I believe that none of House Mnemon accepted?” he responded.

That matched my understanding. It had left Demarol fuming and Yrina waspish for several days, according to the servants I’d heard gossiping. It was plausible since they were also descended from the Scarlet Empress and very proud of it. Mind you, so were House Ragara and they were attending.

Demarol nodded and then looked at Nalan.

“Peleps,” he declared. “We’re hundreds of miles from the sea.”

“Wrong, actually.” Demarol corrected him. “The Peleps are not entirely limited to nautical affairs and two of our guests will be from that house.”

Nalan slumped in disappointment while his grandfather turned his gaze to me.

“Iselsi,” I told him promptly.

The younger twin slapped his face, realising he’d forgotten an easy one. House Iselsi was almost extinct and very rarely made public appearances. As far as I know their elders haven’t left the Immaculate Order temples they’re hiding in for centuries.

Before Opiha – who seemed to be trembling just from being around Demarol’s earlier fury - could tread on any landmines, I added: “And I’m fairly sure there’s no fifth house, I’ve heard guests named from both House Ledaal and House V’Neef.”

“That is correct,” I was told. Demarol glanced over at Opiha and then turned to Nolly. “I believe my great-granddaughter is too young to ask more of her. Take her back to the nursery.”

The young woman hastened to draw Opiha away, clearly glad to have an excuse to leave. I wished I was going with them – or that Hunt would be locked up given her gaffe, since the younger girl would be much better company.

Unfortunately, my feelings must have been visible enough to catch Demarol’s attention. “And what do you find objectionable about Opiha’s departure, Alina?”

I curtseyed. “I only hoped that Opiha might be able to go to the gala, so she could spend time with her brother Icole, father. I know she has missed him while he is at school.”

“I do know who her brother is,” he said testily. “And the two of them will have plenty of time over the summer, while this may be a rare chance for you to make contacts for the future. General Arada will certainly be too busy to attend any galas next year and it’s likely that most of the House will converge on Lord’s Crossing in the summer, so your own departure for school will be a far less illustrious gathering. You should be grateful for this opportunity.”

“Please believe that I am grateful to you father.” Yes, please believe that. “I think only of my family before myself.”

He huffed, somewhat appeased. “Well think of the larger family. The three of you are to pay attention to your elders. In particular, Tepet Arada is among the Realm’s greatest generals and his granddaughter is likely to replace him as our House’s paramount military mind in a few more decades. When the gala is over, I will expect you all to be able to fully recount the great deeds of the Wind Dancer and the Roseblack to me.”

Arada would be too busy next year? It couldn’t be the Bull could it… No, I was sure it was still too early. Yurgen Kaneko – the Bull of the North – was perhaps the most infamous Solar Exalt of the early 760s. Having eluded the Wyld Hunt and allied with a second Solar, Samea, he had laid the groundwork for an empire in the Northern Threshold.

He was perfectly placed when the Solars returned en masse, recruiting four younger and less experienced Solars as lieutenants. But that was years away, as was the flare up in hostilities between the Linowan and Haltan tribal peoples that eventually brought the Bull’s armies and the Tepet’s legions into collision.

No, whatever was going on, it couldn’t be that. Not unless things were drastically changed. I had spoken with Yurgen more than once and right now he was simply a respected elder within the Icewalkers of the North. It would be two or three years before he took a lone walk into the winter, expecting death but receiving the blessing of the Unconquered Sun.

I should pay more attention to the news of the outside world though. I was sheltered from much of it now, but sooner or later it would impact on me. And making contacts at the gala was the best way to start it.

So, the jerk was right. How unexpected.

“Now,” he continued. “Since we have addressed the Great Houses, the next most important matter is military rank. We are Tepet and it would be a disgrace for you not to know and use an army officer’s rank incorrectly. Hunt, I will let you redeem yourself, if you can. What are the ranks that an Exalt may hold in the legions?”

“F-fanglord,” she started, and then seemed to gather more confidence. “Scalelord, Talonlord, Winglord, Dragonlord and finally General.”

Demarol nodded approvingly. “Better. Doreg, how many soldiers would each of them lead?”

The boy moved his fingers slightly, counting out as he answered. “Five for the fanglord, then twenty-five for a scalelord. One… hundred twenty-five for a talonlord, twice that… two hundred and fifty for a winglord and five hundred for a dragonlord!” He paused in thought. “Five thousand regular soldiers for a general, but auxiliaries…”

“Half as many so seven and a half thousand,” exclaimed Nalan.

“Approximately, yes.” Demarol gave Nalan a reproving glare. “However, that was your brother’s question. Perhaps you recall the ranks mortals can hold, hmm?”

“Ah… fang-sergeant, then scale-lieutenant.” The grey-haired boy was moving his hands in much the same way as his twin, but using his left hand rather than his right. “Talon-captain…” He stalled.

Demarol waited, let Nalan twist for a good long moment and then looked at me. “Can you complete that, Alina?”

“In theory, Wing-major and Dragon-colonel,” I answered him. “There’s no mortal equivalent for a general because legion command is expressly reserved for the Exalted, and it’s vanishingly rare for a mortal to rise past talon-captain.”

“Well answered,” my lawful father approved. “Very well. Some lapses, which I am sure Shoku will see to shortly, but at least you seem to understand the very basics…”

I’d found a more discreet corner of the estate to practise in, around the back of one of the guest courtyards, after the incident with Yrina’s sweets. It was quiet most of the time, but as guests arrived for the gala it had been abustle with preparations and too risky.

Today though, as the main banquet welcoming guests was underway, I could have some chance of privacy there.

I worked through a kata of a style I’d learned from courtesans in the pleasure quarter of Lookshy, allowing motes of essence to work their magic as I unleashed the moves upon an imaginary foe. I would have liked to attempt Golden Janissary, but that had a nasty tendency to light up the area with golden sparks.

In daylight, I could risk that but not with evening setting in. Not only would it be obvious that I was practising a supernatural martial art, but a golden anima banner was the characteristic of the Solar Exalted, such that they were referred to as Golden Anathema. The Immaculate Order didn’t just persecute golden janissaries because they encroached on the Order’s status as the premier ghost and demon hunters.

Well, regardless of the style, I’d have really liked someone I could fight against properly. You can be the most perfect performer of kata on a dojo floor or training yard, but unless you’re actually fighting against someone, it amounts to particularly aggressive dancing.

Alas, the chances were pretty slim that I’d run unto someone I could fight without witnesses who’d recognise that I was using improper styles. Or an opponent I could really cut loose against.

Doreg was annoying, but I didn’t want to kill him. Or Hunt… most of the time, at any rate.

On the plus side, over the last year I’d been making rapid progress in getting to grips with the amount of essence I could handle now that I’d entered the second plateau of advancement. There were times when I even considered that it might be possible to reach the third plateau.

That would be ludicrous though. Even with the knowledge of my previous life, it was normally the work of decades to get even as far as I had now. Perhaps once I completed my primary schooling, in seven or eight years, I might be able to convince Demarol to allow me a year of martial pilgrimage and push through then?

Assuming I didn’t exalt, the Immaculate Order was probably my best path for advancement. Sooner or later, someone would realise that I’d awakened my essence. It would be best if I was neatly slotted into a socially acceptable role. And if I got posted to the Threshold, I would be able to drop out of sight.

It would be far better than someone assuming I was a rogue sorcerer or upstart thaumaturge. It wasn’t unheard of for such men and women to spark riots and lynchings.

I brought my hand around in a sinuous move that would, in theory, have torn armour away from an imaginary opponent, leaving them vulnerable. It lacked much of the grace that it should have – a true master of the style could bring someone down before they even knew that they were in a fight. Some had slain an aggressor in the middle of a crowded party and managed to be deniably distant before anyone realised that the fallen wasn’t simply dead drunk.

My current skill was still short of that. I would have to keep working on it.

I was about to repeat the move when I heard the sound of someone on the far side of the wall.

The guest courtyard was the furthest from the manse, with only a comparatively narrow alleyway dividing it from the outer wall that surrounded the estate’s community. Beyond it were the farmlands that supported us both directly (by feeding us) and indirectly (through the sale of crops to fund the household), as well as the sizeable hunting preserve that would be the site of the impending hunting trip.

The alley was wide enough for someone of my limited height and reach to practise in, but it was nowhere near any of the gates in the outer wall. What would someone be doing out there?

I ducked back and listened, narrowing the source to a point on the wall. Was someone trying to climb the wall?

It wasn’t exactly a major fortification, but the wall was a good two yards tall. Was some bandit crazy enough to attack a Dragon-Blooded’s home during a gala when they had scores of guests, many of them Exalted themselves?

No, that made no sense. But perhaps theft – if someone got into the guest courtyard and made off with valuables of the guest, it would be a major embarrassment. And that might even be engineered for that effect rather than for profit by the theft.

I should probably tell someone, I decided. Even if it meant losing the training spot, a major humiliation for Tepet Demarol would be much worse for me, on several levels.

Before I could run to find an adult, a head popped over the top of the wall and I ducked for cover. Fortunately, one reason that this part of the estate was relatively isolated was that it was often used to store empty crates and barrels that weren’t immediately needed. With a gala underway, there were many of these, so there were plenty of them to hide behind.

The woman on the wall glanced around and then heaved herself up and threw one leg over it. She seemed surprisingly large until I realised that she wore a scale shirt of jade and that the sword across her back was far too large to be wieldy unless it was also of jade steel.

An Exalt? Why would an exalt sneak over the wall rather than simply walk in. No one would challenge their right to do so, at worst reporting to my adoptive father that we had an unexpected arrival.

Also, running was out. There was basically no chance of getting away faster on my little legs than an Exalt could chase unless they were particular unathletic. And this woman clearly wasn’t.

She heaved her other leg over the wall and hopped down. The armour was unnaturally quiet as she landed, but a kitbag on the other shoulder from her baldric was less discreet.

So, stealth and escape were out. That left bluff.

“Who goes there!” I barked, trying to keep my voice steady.

The intruder started and looked around for the source. She was no beauty, I noted without particular judgement. Blunt featured, with her hair cropped into a practical bowl-cut that suggested she was used to wearing a helmet. She raised her hands – away from any weapons at her belt but it wouldn’t take much for her to reach back and unsheathe the heavy chopping blade of her daiklave. “Peace, peace, I am invited guest.”

I let scepticism colour my tone. “And you couldn’t find the gate?”

She laughed ruefully. “Perhaps it’s as hidden as the guards are? I am Tepet Elana, a kinswoman to the lord of this manse.”

That seemed plausible, her armour was blue jade – the colour of an Air-aspect and that was the element most represented among House Tepet’s Exalted. I could only think of one House that had a uniform elemental affinity and that was because House V’Neef was only two generations old with less than a dozen members so far. Every other house was mixed, but except for the Nellens they tended to skew towards the aspect of their founder or founders.

“Anyone can wear a Tepet mon.” I couldn’t even see the badge on her armour, but that might confuse her about where I was. If things went wrong all I could do was scream for help, but the longer I stalled her, the more likely it was that a servant might come here and notice her.

I say more likely, not very likely though.

“Might I ask who I am speaking to?” she asked instead. “I have given my own name, after all.”

I hesitated. Would she know my name? Unlikely. I didn’t know hers… or did I?

I can hardly claim to have met every Tepet in this life or in my last. And if she was indeed with one of the legions, which her clothes suggested, then she might well be among those that had fallen.

Yet there was something familiar about her.

“I am hesitant to give up any advantage against a suspicious intruder.” I tried to sound confident. “But the name you give is familiar. Perhaps as a bona fide that you are who you say, explain why you desire to arrive without notice?”

She sighed. “If you know me, then I’m sure you’ll understand I’d rather not face my mother without a night’s rest.”

Her mother… huh. What did…

Realisation sank in. I’d never met her, no. But I had heard of her. One of the Scarlet Empress’ last magistrates – one of the roving law enforcers that answered only to the imperial throne’s authority. They generally made enemies, but Elana had upheld the law to her last breath. And rumour had it that she did so mostly to avoid a marriage that her mother had arranged for her.

“I don’t think your fiancé is present,” I conceded and relaxed. This woman was much as Elana was described… although probably she was not a magistrate yet.

The Exalt sighed. “That doesn’t make much difference. I would be grateful if I could put off making any public appearances until morning at least.”

“Well,” I stepped out from concealment and looked her up and down. “I’m not going to be dragging you anywhere, obviously.”

The soldier lowered one hand and used the other to facepalm. “Ambushed by a child. My sergeants would never let me live this down.”

I hopped up onto a barrel and sat on it. “I won’t tell them if you don’t.” Cheeky, but I didn’t think she’d stand on ceremony.

I was right. Elana laughed instead and offered me a hand. “It’s a deal.”

We shook solemnly on the pact and she leant against the wall facing me. “I’m serious about avoiding attention. It’s been a long day on the road and mother will keep me up half the night complaining that I haven’t taken enough leave to meet Peleps Kerel. Never mind that my legion is half of Creation’s distance away. I barely had the time to make it here and – no offense – I would have rather spent the time in Chanos.”

That was a military port on the north side of the Blessed Isle. It was a major hub for troop movements and had all the usual industries to support a transient force of legionnaires who had cash to spend and fairly uncomplicated demands.

“I can’t speak for my father, but it’s not my place to tell one of the Exalted what they should or shouldn’t do – as long as they’re not actually an intruder,” I qualified. “But it’s my place to play guide - to your guest room if you wish – and to take messages, such as directly and discreetly to let my father know that you’re here but resting before making a public appearance. If you wish.”

“That is very hospitable of you.” Elana bowed towards me theatrically. “I would be grateful for your guidance, little lady Tepet. Grateful enough to not enquire as to why Demarol’s daughter is sneaking around the back of his estate during a gala.”

I shrugged. “If I’m not there, no one will ask me to sing. None of us want that.”

The woman threw her head back and laughed. “I didn’t much like it myself. Don’t worry, once you’re in the legions no one cares about the odd missed note. Or notices when there’s a few hundred soldiers making their own mistakes. You are going for the legions? Or do your parents have other plans for you.”

“Well they probably have plans for me, but they haven’t confided them. And likely it depends how I do at school and… well, you know…” Whether I exalted. It would be insane to commit to a plan for my future before there was reasonable certainty about whether I would or not.

Standing, I gestured towards the guest courtyard behind me. “Would you like to go to your room now.”

She nodded. “Yeah, and I’ll write your father a note. That way you don’t have to explain anything where my noble and distinguished mother might hear it. I owe you one… even if you never told me your name.”

“Alina.” I paused and then gave her a formal curtsey. “Tepet Demarol Alina welcomes you to this most noble estate of House Tepet’s son.”

“I am made welcome and accept your hospitality,” she remined formally, almost without thinking about it. “Alina, eh. Well, if we ever wind up serving together, look me up and I’ll show you the ropes.”

“I might call on that favour sooner,” I said drily and indicated the end of the shorter alley that opened into a gateway into the courtyard behind me. I was fairly sure that Elana would be quartered there, it was where the more… martially inclined were staying. Perhaps to keep them out of immediate hearing of more cultured and civil examples of dynastic and patrician virtue. Or vice versa, for that matter.

I didn’t see Elana other than in passing the next day – Doreg, Hunt and Nalan were more in display – but I did meet her mother briefly. I think I could have been twice as tall as I was and the Tepet Serakan would still have been looking down her nose at me. She never addressed me directly but her first words to Hunt’s mother, who I was bringing her to, were on the unusual precedent of adopting a bastard when there were legitimate offspring already and when exaltation was still ‘very much in doubt’.

My only recourse was to pretend obliviousness. I was entirely happy to do so since the alternative would have been spending more time with the two Exalted women and that would have been excruciating, even if I wasn’t making the tremendous faux pas of arguing with older, wiser and more enlightened beings than my humble self.

The next day however, I was marched out to the stables along with the other children participating. We fell into pairs fairly naturally – Icole’s cousins were walking together in the lead so he fell in at the rear with me, letting Doreg and Hunt form the centre of the little column.

“I’m sorry Opiha isn’t coming,” I offered the older boy. He was growing rather handsome in a polished fashion that would fit well with the bureaucratic and courtly circles that Demarol involved himself in. Naturally though, Icole was aspiring to the House of Bells – the Realm’s most prestigious military academy – and legion service.

“It’s fine,” he told me, looking around. “I wouldn’t be able to talk much to her anyway on the hunt. Father told me I’ll need to get a recommendation if he’s going to apply for me to attend the House of Bells. So, I need to make a good impression on one of the legion officers present.”

“Well, we’re supposed to shadow someone,” I conceded. “And they probably wouldn’t want a lot of chatter as we hunt. I won’t be offended if you’re not paying attention to me.”

“I would never not pay attention to you or Opiha,” Icole assured me, with a smile that must break hearts at his school. “I just have to do the same to whoever lets me accompany them.”

We reached the stables, where not only the stable hands but several other servants with applicable experience were busy saddling horses for the mortals present and hitching up teams to the chariots that would serve the Exalted.

For some reason, living mounts don’t like elemental energy flaring around their riders. It’s quite literally wounding unless the Terrestrial Exalt has gone out of their way to learn not to do that. For that reason, Dragon-Blooded prefer chariots or their own feet to riding anywhere – unless you’re a Wood-aspect or a particularly avid rider.

We still can ride horses of course. It’s expected to be competent, but it’s impractical and not even fashionable.

“Who do you want to ride with?” I asked.

“I was thinking the Roseblack.” Icole indicated a redheaded woman in gleaming green-jade plate armour. (It might seem odd to wear battle plate into a hunt, but such artifacts are a mark of one’s Exalted status so it was expected that you carried your panoply with you at all times. It was the same reason father carried his daiklaves around even to non-martial meetings.

I could understand the appeal to Icole – not only was Tepet Ejava beautiful but she had a rising reputation. A recommendation would carry great weight and could be the beginning of a fruitful relationship as one of her junior officers.

“I… uh-oh.”

“What?”

I pointed to where Doreg was weaving through the crowded stable yard towards the same chariot Icole was looking at. “Intentionally other otherwise, someone seems to be getting there first.”

The dark-haired boy muttered something under his breath and tried to follow, but someone picked that very moment to move their chariot out, blocking our path. By the time we could move, Doreg was already making his pitch to Ejava. The Exalted gave him a look of obvious scepticism but then shrugged and as Icole crossed drew close, she shrugged.

Doreg bounded up on the chariot with her, pulling Hunt after him.

“Damn!” hissed Icole, having to step aside as the Roseblack snapped her reins and expertly moved her chariot out.

I tried to pat him on the shoulder but he was too tall now and I had to settle for his upper arm. “There are other possibilities.”

“You’re right,” he agreed, looking up with a determined look. “How about General Arada? We can ask him.”

That would be uncomfortable, I realised. I wasn’t as familiar with Arada as I was with Yurgen Kaneko, but I had met both of them. In fact, I’d even been one of the witnesses when they fought a formal duel to ‘settle any remaining issues’ from their war. It had only been to first blood, fortunately, but they’d fought ferociously and I didn’t doubt that Arada’s record of defeating Solar Exalted in single combat was genuine.

To this day, I wasn’t entirely sure the Bull had allowed the Realm general a win as a gesture of diplomacy or if he’d genuinely underestimated the old man. I was just glad I hadn’t had any money riding on the matter.

The man who was mounting up his own chariot was a different man, years younger and not humbled by his great and shameful defeat. But still… I had spoken to him and one topic we’d touched on during a quiet moment at a campfire as we waited for our scouts to report contact with the enemy, saving our energy for the battle to come, had been our children.

I caught Icole’s hand. “I don’t think that that’s a good idea. From what I’ve heard, General Tepet isn’t fond of children. And even you’re probably not old enough that he won’t dismiss you. You need someone more approachable.”

“It can’t hurt to try.”

“It can if everyone else is mounted and departs while you’re trying to talking him around.” I looked around the stable yard. Who was…?

“Aha!”

“What?” asked Icole.

“You need a Legion officer, right?” I pulled him towards a corner. “Quickly, we need to get there first.”

“But no one else is heading this way!”

He was wrong. His cousins weren’t heading this way but there was a dynast heading towards the chariot and I might just be able to upgrade the favour Tepet Elana owed me. Having a favour from a future magistrate could come in extremely handy given I suspected that I’d fall afoul of Imperial law sooner or later. She might not be willing to break the law, given what I’d heard of her character, but she might be persuaded to give me a running start – enough to be sporting.

Ahead of us, the Legion officer was mounted on her own chariot and I saw the moment she realised that her mother was closing in. If I read her right, Elana would jump at any chance not to be trapped travelling with her mother – and the chariots were really only large enough for two or three. Certainly not for two adults and a pair of children.

“Lady Elana,” I greeted her, calling out and waving. “May Icole and I ride with you on this hunt?”

The Air-aspect was quick up on the uptake, as a good officer should be. “Of course, I would be honoured to have Lord Demarol’s youngest daughter and his great-grandson with me as guides,” she said loudly enough to carry.

I didn’t see her mother’s face, which was probably for the best.

“Thank you, Talonlord,” Icole greeted Elana formally. It figured that he’d know her rank, which was the same as Ejava’s now that I thought about it. But Ejava was a good fifty or so years younger than Elana if I recalled

“Ah, Elana will do. I’m not on duty now and we’re kin, after all.” The Exalt reached down and hoisted me up beside her, letting Icole board on his own. “I got the kinships right, didn’t I?” she asked under her breath.

Icole nodded. “Yes… Elana. Alina is my great-aunt… by adoption.” He shot me an apologetic look at letting his need to be precise overweigh any offense it might cause.

I wasn’t that bothered, instead gripping the side of the chariot as Elana took up the reins and the horses started to pull it after those already in motion. “Good hunting, mother,” she called as we went past the older dynast.

There was a reply but I didn’t hear it as I tried to flex my legs against the rattling of the chariot over the paving of the main avenue.

“You’ve just saved me from a fate worse than death,” Elana joked. “So why are you two so eager to ride with a reprobate like me and how can I repay you?”

Icole gave her a blank look. “Uh…”

I sighed. “Father wants me to be able to recite the deeds of Tepet Ejava and Tepet Arada, and as I recall, soldiers love to gossip.”

“That’s true! That’s true!” she agreed merrily. “And your companion? Be honest now.”

He flushed. “I need a letter of recommendation from a Legion officer before father will apply in my name to the House of Bells.”

Elana gave him a serious look. “Now that I can’t just give you, but show me your qualities on the hunt and I’ll consider it. That’s all I’ll offer when we’re meeting for the first time.”

He straightened and then had to cling to the rail himself as we hit a slight bump in the road. “I’ll do my best to impress you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Just try not to fuck up like a Fanglord on his first posting!”

We weren’t actually hunting from the chariots, that would be ridiculous. Over anything but open ground they would be useless and any prey with an ounce of survival instincts would head for denser trees and bushes to escape.

Instead we disembarked and made our way into the forested preserve on foot, leaving the chariots and horses at the edge. The preferred prey would be some of the deer, herds of which were maintained for events like this, but in addition there were wild boar deeper in the forest. A hunt the last year had thinned the boars considerably so we were all warned very firmly that it would be as unsporting to hunt them this year as it would be to take out the fawns of the deer herd.

“That doesn’t count if a boar attacks us,” Elana warned the two of us as we passed out of sight of the chariot. “Just don’t loose an arrow at one. You’ll only provoke it.” A thin line of hunters was sweeping through the woods – I could just barely tell that Elana’s mother was off to my left but the hunters to our right were beyond my ability to see or hear. The Dragon-Blood seemed confident they were out there though.

The three of us had bows and Elana, of course, had her daiklave across her back. In addition, Nicol had a boar spear in his hands. I could hold it for him if he needed to shoot, but I certainly wasn’t going to try carrying seven feet of hard wood and the sturdy metal spearhead with its cross-bar. The weight and balance made it highly unwieldy.

“Ejava exalted on a hunt like this one,” Elana mentioned absently, keeping her voice low. “She was… I forget how old. Perhaps your age Icole. It would have been further south because she was ambushed by a tiger and killed it in the first rush of her power.”

I glanced at Icole. “Tigers don’t range this far north, do they?”

“Only in the mountains, or so I hear,” he said, somewhat less than reassuringly. That didn’t imply any sort of land barrier.

“Tiger hunting is quite the sport but they’re quite rare here,” Elana offered reassuringly. “But if one turns up just hide behind me. Their claws can be quite hazardous to mortals – they never quite get all the rotted flesh off them. I don’t have to worry about getting infected off just a minor gash.”

I nodded. Such sport had never appealed to me. If something needed killing, just do it and get it over with. “How did you exalt?”

“Some petty brawl at school. There was a teacher who had it in for me and in the end Mela walked with me when I killed him.” She shook his head. “Tepet Arada’s old school, I think. Neither of us was what you might call model students but the Realm has a place for unruly students. I don’t think either of you has the makings of that sort of thing but if you ever wind up in the Untamed Storm then remember you probably earned it. No family wants to admit they had their children sent there.”

I rubbed my head. “The Untamed Storm?”

“I’ve heard of it,” murmured Icole. “Not officially, but word gets around. That a student might simply be taken away overnight.”

“It’s a school for the otherwise irredeemable.” Elana’s eyes were far away. “My brothers died when I was quite young and they were the only family I really cared about. Without them… I blame my mother for a lot, but sending me to the Untamed Storm was the right thing to do. I learned discipline, got direction… I assume it was the same as Arada. He exalted before he got there, long before me of course. He’s a century or more my elder. Nasty piece of work, by all accounts. But you don’t get to be a general of the Realm by being nice to our enemies.”

“I thought he was a great hero.”

“Sure, he is. One of the greatest Dragon-Blooded alive. But he doesn’t have many friends. Even the elders are scared of him. Did you hear what he did with the head of Joachim?”

I’d heard that one in the last life but Icole apparently hadn’t. “I thought he cut it off – you mean the Anathema, right?”

“That’s the one.” Elana smiled thinly. “The elders had been holding Tepet’s sword out as ‘bait’, something that they might award to Arada or one of his generation if they distinguished themselves. It was really getting the general’s goat, not because he wanted it but because the elders thought the was stupid enough to fall for something so transparent.”

I nodded. “I think I heard this.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “No one would have told a little girl this the way it should be. So, there they were in the war camp, debating what to do about Joachim’s army. All anyone’s heard from Arada in weeks was that he was on patrol. Most of them thought he was dead – it wouldn’t be the first Dragon-Blood to fall. They’d been fighting Joachim for years.”

The woman turned to look at us, eyes alight with pleasure. “And then word comes in that he’s back. That he has something to report. So, they call him in – his father and his uncles - figuring to roast him for being overdue. And Arada, he walks right in, looks them in the eye and – wham!” She stamped her feet. “He smacked Joachim’s head down right on the map table. ‘So, is that distinguished enough?’”

Icole winced. “He was mad.”

“Sure, but he won the war. None of them could argue with that. And as soon as they were back on the Isle there was a big ceremony, and they gave him Tepet’s sword. He was very humble, he said all the right things, but he had this smile…” Elana grinned broadly. “I’ve seen it just once. Just once when he was doing an inspection. They say it’s exactly the smile he had that day. And when he was done inspecting my legion, fourteen officers were given a choice: resign their commission or walk down to the training ground and prove they were fit to serve. The smart ones resigned.”

Icole shook his head. “It’s hard to imagine.”

“Yeah. It’s hard if you’ve never been out in the field. But we’re Tepet. I may not have gone to the House of Bells like he did – don’t worry, recommendation letters don’t require that – but most of us do time in the Legions. Even Demarol did, even if he didn’t like it enough to make a career of. And we’re not like the Sesus or the Cathak. They’re warmth and charm, being mostly fire. They can do the politics of rising through the ranks. And sure, some of us are like that too.”

There was a long pause as we walked.

“But there’s a lot of us - like Arada or at least we want to think that we are. The rough men and women who make our lives out there, taking the Realm’s law and order to the satrapies so that you kids can grow up safe, so that the Thousand Scales can weigh coins and the Immaculates can pray… and sure, all that’s important and the Realm wouldn’t work without that. But if the Realm wouldn’t work without them, it wouldn’t even exist without the Legions. And a lot of that hard core are Tepet enough that it counts.”

The boy next to me swallowed. “I don’t… I don’t understand that.”

“Of course, you don’t,” she told him tolerantly. “I don’t expect you to. But sometime, if you get the Bells or just join up through some other school like I did. Then you’ll see it for yourself and maybe you’ll get it there. It’s no kindness if you do, but if none of us did then -”

She broke off and we stopped, looking at her. I nocked an arrow, thinking she might have seen a deer.

Then she cursed, like the soldier she was, and reached for her daiklave. “Tree, find a tree!”

There was a rustle through the bushes, more of a tearing sound, and Icole dropped his spear, grabbing me by the wrist and yanking me back.

I dropped my bow and followed. I could guess what was happening and they were doing the right thing.

There was an infuriated squeal from behind us as we headed for a tree with branches low enough to get up them. I didn’t bother turning around, but Icole looked back over his shoulder right as there was a roar of exertion from Elana.

I vaguely registered the sound of Elana’s daiklave hitting flesh and bone, but my eye was on Icole as he missed a root and his foot came down wrong, ankle twisting at just the wrong angle.

The boy fell, almost dragging me down before he let me go.

“Keep going,” he screamed.

There was another curse from Elana, I guess as she saw what had happened. And a squeal that told me that she had not finished whatever the threat was.

Logically I should have followed their instructions.

But like hell was I going back and telling Opiha that I’d let Icole get himself killed being a hero. Instead I skidded to a halt, turning as I did so, dropping to a crouch braced on one hand.

I found myself facing a boar. A second boar, for one already lay bisected behind it, brought down by Elana.

The Dragon-Blood was trying to get to us, but she’d thrown herself at the first one and it would take precious time she didn’t have.

And the piggy eyes met mine with rage and fury. In that second, I saw the arrow in its haunch and knew why.

But I also knew that it was bigger than me, faster than me and that I’d thrown away the chance to escape.

Irresistible force, meet one dynast girl of seven whole years of age.

Icole shouted, trying to attract it away but he didn’t need to.

I lunged into its charge, hands reaching out and feet securing themselves on the forest floor.

And Creation moved with me.

That’s how it felt. That’s how it always feels. Like it’s not my essence, not my hands. Like I’m part of everything.

And we just said “I will not be moved.”

My hands met the tusks… gripped them… and several hundred pounds of boar came to an abrupt and unexpected halt.

I cannot say how long we held there. Probably only a few heartbeats. But it seemed like forever.

And the world around me was full of light. Full of glorious white light, pure as only that colour ever will be to me.

That perfect moment was ended with a brutal crash as Elana’s daiklave smashed down and severed the boar’s spine. Along with most of its rubs while she was at it.

The beast that had been about to kill me died with a stunned look on its piggy face. Unable to comprehend what had happened to it.

And Elana looked at me and then at Icole. I turned and saw that he was alright, just sprawled on the ground and staring up at me with an almost worshipful look on his face.

“Uh, what now?” I asked, still trying to catch up with what I’d done. I hadn’t really been thinking. Just reacting and with instincts that… well, turned out to have been right.

Elana threw back her head and laughed almost hysterically.
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VX-145
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by VX-145 »

I'm quite enjoying reading this, even though I don't know much about the background.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

She just Exalted.
Which will put Hunt right off her meals in jealous disgust for months :-D
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Sidebar: Terrestrial Exalted

It's not clear historically whether Terrestrial Exalted or Celestial Exalted were created first, even the memories of those directly involved having been distorted by the massive conceptual damage done to Creation during the Primordial War. Interestingly, each type argues that it was the other that came first and that they were created as a solution to a deficiency on the side of the other: the Celestial's limited numbers or the comparative weakness of the Terrestrials.

Whichever the case is, it is recorded that the five Elemental Dragons - the first of all the Elemental Spirits - each took two thousand mortals of suitable vigour and conferred upon them the gift of Exaltation. The legendary ten thousand Dragon-Blooded (nine-tenths of whom were female) would be the parents of the great army of Terrestrial Exalted that fought in the Primordial War and served the Solar Exalted until the Usurpation.

The Terrestrial Exaltation is hereditary, with the intention being that all children born to one of them would exalt (and in the same elemental aspect as their parents). It was therefore expected that the Dragon-blood would confine procreation to their own ranks, and also their own aspects. It can therefore be presumed that the Elemental Dragons didn't understand humanity very well. Long before the end of the First Age, the Terrestrial Exalted had mingled their bloodlines with mortals, ghosts, demons and - to judge by some Wood-aspects - both fauna and flora.

At first this seemed to have no particular consequence but as centuries passed, it became clear that the Terrestrial Exalted were generally weaker than previously recorded. Typically shorter-lived than their Celestial masters, the Dragon-Blooded barely noticed this gradual degradation until, unexpectedly, they discovered that it was now possible for their children not to Exalt. This was at first scandalous, then unfortunate and eventually accepted. By the current age it is considered normal that most children of the Dragon-Blooded not to exalt. Only the most old-fashioned Dragon-Blooded even insist on marrying their own kind.

There were, of course, other problems for them to deal with. After more than three millennia of Solar rule, the Dragon-Blooded were increasingly unhappy with the excesses of their master. The Solar Deliberative, which might occasionally condescend to listen to lesser Exalted, was increasingly made up of erratic and terrifyingly powerful despots. It took relatively little prodding by those Sidereal Exalted who shared their concerns to inspire the Usurpation.

The coup was essentially won in the first days, as tens of thousands of crack Terrestrial Exalted caught most of the Solar Exalted at a feast in their capital on Mount Meru. Poisoned by the Sidereal Exalted, the Solar Exalted fought back ferociously, shattering the city in the process, but the overwhelming majority of them perished. The handful who had escaped or been elsewhere fell back into strongholds and awaited the exaltation of new Solar Exalted to join them in a counterattack... only to find no such exaltations taking place. As the Dragon-Blooded war machine ground each down in turn, further battles caused incalculable damage as the Terrestrials purged not only the Solars but many of their unexalted servants, accurately realising that their loyalties would not waver.

Meanwhile the remaining Lunar Exalted withdrew to the edges of Creation and the Sidereals departed, erasing themselves from history to render them more able puppet-masters to the Terrestrials who had inherited Creation. This was not an entirely simple process: the Solar Exalted had ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, which the Terrestrials lacked. It took immense effort by the Sidereals to persuade the gods to accept the new state of play, and they had to establish an order of monks - adherents to the so-called Immaculate Philosophy - to handle spiritual matters that would have previously required minimal effort by even younger Celestial Exalted. Meanwhile the Realm's infrastructure had been intended to be supported and operated by Solar Exalted that were no longer present, meaning many greater wonders had to be done without.

Nonetheless, the Dragon-Blooded grimly fought on, improvising work-arounds for what they lacked and squabbling periodically over who would rule Creation as their Shogun. If their Realm was less than its predecessor, it was still a wealthy and successful civilisation stretching across almost all of Creation.

And then the Great Contagion spread uncontrollably, killing ninety percent of everything that lived.

And then the Balorian Crusade unleashed uncountable hordes of Raksha, intent on conquering and destroying Creation completely.

The Dragon-Blooded could not counter the Contagion, but the tenth of them that survived it rode out to face the Balorians (aided, unknown to them, by many of the Lunar Exalted they feared and hunted as Anathema). Very few of either survived.

And some seven hundred centuries and change ago, one Dragon-Blooded officer ventured into a long-abandoned Solar Manse and activated - at horrible cost - the ultimate weapon system of the Exalted. The Sword of Creation obliterated the Balorian hosts, saving those parts of Creation that remained. And then it obliterated every other claimant to the vacated throne of the Shogun.

That officer proclaimed herself the Scarlet Empress, and over the following decades she established herself as the direct ruler of the Blessed Isle and, via satraps, over most of the rest of Creation. The Immaculate Philosophy became official state policy, integrating the Immaculate Order into this new Realm. Her children, and those of her closest supporters, became the Great Houses of the Scarlet Dynasty.

And in beyond the reach of the Realm, tiny scattered bloodlines of the Terrestrial Exalted remain prominent among those who resist her: the outcastes.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Drakensis glossed over the fact that the Solar Exalted had become despots and unstable, because the Dying Primordials threw a curse on them, on the Lunar Exalts, and on the Sideraels (Planetary Exalts, governing the Weave of Fate). The Solars were cursed with Pride and Excess, so they couldn't control their emotions and became bipolar or schizophrenics. The Lunars were cursed to be more Bestial and easily lost to bloody rages. The Sideraels were cursed to Hubris, and began to believe only THEY knew The Right Way, because they could see it in the Weave of Fate.

Thus, when the Solars became Despots, and the Lunars too Bestial, one Siderael came up with the idea of Usurpation, and he convinced all the other Sideraels to follow along. As there were only 100 Sideraels, they used the DragonBloods as their catspaws.
This had great consequences, as the Solars were doing most of the work of protecting Creation from Yozi Demons, and also keeping the Primordials (aka the NeverBorn) trapped in Exile. The Lunars, while Bestial, were the ones keeping the Wyld Fae and their Chaos outside the Order of Creation, with help of the Sword of Creation, the Barrier Ward, and other Solar creations.

With the Solars and Lunars dead or weakened, Creation was weakened. To prevent the Solars from Exalting again, the Sideraels created The Jade Prison to capture the Solar Essences, but it only caught those who died in the first days of the Usurpation. The Sideraels continued hunting those who'd gotten away, secure in their Belief this was the Right Way, but somehow they missed seeing the future effects.

The DeathLords are ghosts of a few Solars who were murdered during or after the Usurpation, who sold themselves to the NeverBorn in exchange for power to get revenge. One of them found a Well of Knowledge, and discovering a disease within, she released The Great Contagion upon Creation. She hoped not for power, but for Oblivion, but it didn't quite work and cost her a lot of her power.

The countless deaths did strengthen the Deathlords as it weakened the world's defenders, enough that Balor and his Fae were able to break the wards the Solars had kept up and start turning Creation's Order into Wyld Chaos. Some believe a Deathlord or two helped Balor get through the Ward, knowing it would feed more deaths to the Shadowlands and NeverBorn.
When the Scarlet Empress broke into the Imperial Palace, she was one of several Dragonbloods in a squadron. One by one, the defenses killed them, until only she made it to the center. After destroying the Fae, she cold-heartedly took care of any who'd argue her position, and over the next few centuries set up the Empire so the Great Houses were too busy plotting against each other to attack her, and setting up the power structure so she had the Final Say in everything, paralyzing the government any time she chose.

Meanwhile, the Yozi had found out about the Jade Prison. While they themselves couldn't touch it, they shared the knowledge with the DeathLords, who created a servant to steal the prison and bring the Essences to them. Along the way, the Prison was broken, although only half the Solar Essences escaped to find new Exalts. The rest were split between the Yozi and the Deathlords.

With the Jade Prison broken, there are now new Solar Exalts, some with old memories, and all still Cursed. What the Deathlords and Yozi do with their Essences is yet to be seen in this story.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Resplendent Water



What happened next was essentially everyone involved in the hunt converging on my location, courtesy of the light of my anima banner being visible for well over a mile. Each wave of arrivals then turned around and explained what had happened to later arrivals. Sometimes with less than perfect accuracy, since I heard at least one explaining that I’d taken up Elana’s daiklave and cut down both the boars.

That’s ridiculous, by the way. Daiklaves are inconveniently heavy for grown men, much less a child my size. The only reason anyone can use them is by attuning your essence to them and committing some of that essence indefinitely into ‘tricking’ Creation into considering it part of your body and much lighter. As it’s attuned owner, the only person for whom the reaver daiklave was practical was Elana.

(Well, unless she’d broken the attunement and I spent several hours building an attunement of my own to the weapon. There had hardly been the time, even if Elana was likely to do such a thing).

I didn’t have any opportunity to do anything to correct these errors because I was busy being praised and interrogated by Demarol, who was… extremely excited. He was, I suppose, seeing a payoff to his investment in adopting me, several years earlier than his best-case scenario.

“Has anyone ever exalted so young?” he exclaimed loudly.

“Wasn’t that Ledaal boy about this age when he exalted?” suggested Tepet Serakan.

“He was about to leave for primary school,” grunted Arada, who was standing back from the conversation. “Exalted because he didn’t want to leave his mother.”

“Ledaal Kes,” declared my father. “But Alina is even younger. She’s not quite seven.”

He didn’t even remember my age. I was really tempted to correct him but what would be the point.

“Seven?” exclaimed Ejava. “That is remarkable. Your daughter’s ancestry must be excellent. Did any of your other children exalt before they were ten?”

I could practically see father struggling to diplomatically explain this. “Is Icole alright?” I asked to distract them.

The boy was in a seated position, with Elana checking on him. “it’s just twisted,” she declared, not looking up. “Painful and he shouldn’t walk on it for a while, but nothing permanent.”

Father looked as if he could care less about how an unexalted family member was, given he’d just been blessed with another Dragon-Blood in the household but nonetheless, he turned aside to have servants called to carry Icole back to the chariot.

Elana stood and wiped her hands. “All credit to Alina, but the boy is quick witted and takes instruction well,” she added. “I will gladly give him the letter of recommendation that we discussed.”

Diplomatically she left it unclear who exactly she had been discussing it with. It took a moment for Demarol to realise what she meant but then she nodded. “I am pleased to have a second opinion. Even if he does not exalt – and there is still plenty of time for him to – I am sure he has the makings of a fine soldier.”

Arada grunted approvingly and I suspected Icole’s path in life had been secured, as easily as that. Of course, it was also going to put him in terrible danger, but once he decided that was his preferred path, there was no point trying to keep him from being a soldier.

Maybe he wouldn’t end up in one of the legions dominated by House Tepet. Ejava had been serving in another legion, after all. Or perhaps, now that I was Exalted, I could do something about the war with the Bull. There were so many new possibilities open to me now that I wasn’t sure what I should do next.

I didn’t even have to hide supernatural martial arts anymore! The styles of the Five Dragons and Terrestrial Hero would be practically expected of me! That was enough to brighten my day already. And Dragon-Blooded were rather less regulated in what they read…

Although I was still a child, so I probably shouldn’t expect too much liberty there, at least for a few more years.

Yrina made her appearance suddenly, towing a pair of the patrician guests by their shirt fronts. Her face was icy-cold. “I believe I have solved the source of the boars’ aggression,” she declared flatly.

“Do tell.” Elana lifted her daiklave from where she had rested it against the tree while she checked on Icole. Pointedly, she did not return the heavy blade to its scabbard.

“I protest!” one of the men exclaimed. “We are your guests; this is no way to treat us.”

Demarol nodded solemnly. “You are indeed my guests, but I must ask if you have behaved as such. Please, Yrina, let us all hear what has happened.”

My adoptive mother let go of the pair and gestured to what was left of the second boar. “Anyone paying attention to the boar there can see that both the beasts had been hit by arrows, despite the warnings we gave everyone not to provoke any boars by loosing at them.”

“That could have been from your last hunt,” the other man suggested hastily.

Even I saw the flaw in that but I let Yrina voice it: “And you think the boars were walking around for most of a year with intact and freshly fletched arrows?”

“Er…”

“Yes, you have erred,” she agreed. “And every arrow provided for this hunt came from our armoury, in the colours of our estate and differenced for each quiver so that any question of which guest shot what can be easily resolved.”

Reaching towards the men, they flinched but she simply removed an arrow from each’s quiver, holding them up in illustration. “Would anyone like to compare these to the arrows in the boars?”

“Gladly.” Elana stepped up towards them. “I very nearly had to tell my host that two children of his house were wounded or even killed under my care. And he would rightfully have been enraged at me. This… carelessness…” She seemed lost for words.

The men gulped. “It is destiny,” one exclaimed. “It was an error but a fated one. Had we not mistakenly loosed at the boars; then little Alana would not have exalted.”

Skulking at the back of the crowd, I could see Hunt make a face. Something told me that she could have lived with that. Doreg, on the other hand, was trying to work closer to me, constrained only that so many of the adult guests were pressing close.

“Firstly, my name is Alina,” I pointed out. “And secondly, unless I have seriously misunderstood my lessons, those who exalt are destined to do so, as a result of their virtue in their past life leading to being reborn with the proper heritage. Thus, I would have exalted anyway, merely at some later point and without the injury to my cousin and potential embarrassment to the Talonlord.”

General Arada folded his arms. “The girl has some wit. Unlike these two,” he growled.

“Indeed. Her theology is sound,” Serakan confirmed, supporting her daughter I suppose. “What will you do to these fools, Demarol?”

“They are, as they point out, my guests.” Demarol glanced around the gathering, reading the mood. “Or rather, they were. Gentlemen, and I use the word loosely, I will be corresponding with the heads of your families. In the meantime, you have my leave to depart. Today. It is early enough for you to reach Juche or some other destination without spending another night on my lands.”

The look in his eyes suggested that he was eager for them to argue but neither of the men was so foolish as to miss that Demarol was exalted and they were not.

“Very well, sir,” the taller conceded.

“Oh, and do not expect invitations to future hunting parties,” the Exalted lord added quietly. “I think the word of how… poorly you have behaved will be in circulation for some time and others who host such affairs may think you ill-suited for them. It is my thought that the reputation may outlive you yourselves. We Exalted have long memories.”

For the first time I my life I had been brought into my father’s study in the manse and even allowed to sit at the long table there. On the other hand, I really wasn’t expected to actually say anything. Silence was golden for a child in these circumstances.

Also at the table were my parents, and their other daughters: Hunt’s mother Erasa and the twin’s mother Awyne. The Exalted of the first branch of the household weren’t present for both Icole’s father and grandfather were serving with the Tepet Legions at the moment. It was perhaps part of the status battle within the Household that neither had been able to marry Exalted spouses and thus the prospects of Icole or Opiha exalting were considered lesser. But as men, their spouses would only join the household if they were of a patrician background and the comparatively rare patrician Exalted rarely married dynastic houses where their families would lose the benefit of their presence.

In the absence of these close relatives however, we were graced by other Tepet. Elana had made her way in; arguing that, as she had been present at my Exaltation, she felt some responsibility for me, which in turn had brought her mother Serakan. And Tepet Arada… well, the general had not explained his reasons for being there, but no one had the nerve to question him, much less ask him to leave.

At least the Roseblack had not elected to involve herself, perhaps thinking it unnecessary. She did not strike me as a maternal woman and she was as yet unmarried. I wasn’t sure why – perhaps her status as a glamourous and rising military officer meant that the elders of the main Tepet household still hadn’t received an offer they felt to be worthy of her.

“I had not finalized plans for Alina’s schooling,” admitted my father without any embarrassment, “As we have another year to consider… but Awyne has made a point that our tutors may not be ideal to bring along an Exalt.”

Serakan nodded decisively. “I must agree with her. Meaning no disrespect to those you employ in the role but it seems to me that those best prepared to handle an Exalt new to their enlightenment will almost always be employed at a school already. Either you should hire someone away from them -”

Yrina cut that idea dead. “I doubt it would be practical at this stage in the school year. They will be in contract, it’s not as if this is the end of a year and they are looking for prospects to advance themselves.”

“Quite my point, my dear.” Elana’s mother was unabashed. “So, I do feel you should look to send Elina to a school this year, even if she is a little young.”

Well that was a turn up for the books and not what I’d expected at all. Then again, I admitted that I had little enough notion what happened in terms of planning for the future of someone who’d just Exalted. Most often they were away at school and the decisions were made at leisure by parents who might not see them for months anyway.

Demarol folded his hands. “The question then becomes: which school is the best choice for her?”

Elana nodded. “What sort of studies do you think that she might gravitate to?” She looked at me a little sympathetically, the only one so far to spare me a look other than Yrina. And my step-mother had only done so with her usual cool assessment before returning her gaze to Serakan’s intrusion into her domain.

It occurred to me that by Dragon-Blooded standards there weren’t all that many years between Serakan and Yrina. They might have known each other for quite some time and if so, I doubted that they had amicable feelings for each other.

“Excellent at reading, writing and mathematics,” the matriarch of the household replied calmly. “She keeps pace with children a year or so older than her in these basics, which is why I have not dismissed the idea of sending her early.”

“It is hardly unusual for schools to take someone a little before the normal age.” Serakan smiled without any real sincerity. “I realise you may not have encountered such a precocious child before.”

Yrina’s gaze hardened. “Not so artistically inclined,” she continued as if she had not been interrupted. “At least no more than most children her age. But some potential for the martial arts according to the sifu we employ.”

“A competent woman?” asked Serakan aggressively.

Awyne spoke up sharply. “If not, we would hardly employ him.”

That didn’t seem to impress Serakan, which was more or less the point she was making, I guess. Elana spoke up before then. “So, do you have aspirations to join the Immaculate Order, Alina?”

I looked to my father for permission to speak. It would be impolite not to, since I’d been addressed. He gave me not a nod, which might have been taken to mean I should say yes, but just an arched eyebrow that implied he was also curious.

“I don’t think I’m in a position to make an informed decision,” I responded. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but I should learn more of the options that are before me rather than committing to anything. And of course, my parents’ advice will be my main guide.”

Arada grunted and all eyes snapped to him. “Sensible,” he allowed. “I always recommend taking a year or two before committing to a career when I speak to younger Exalted.”

“But for schooling purposes, one that has a strong Immaculate presence might be wise.” Serakan seemed intrigued by this notion. “None of your children have committed to the Immaculate Order, have they, Yrina?”

There was a cold silence and then the lady of the household answered tersely: “One did, as you know.”

“Oh!” Serakan covered her mouth as if shocked. “My goodness, I had almost forgotten him. But he was only mortal, after all.”

I had no idea who they meant specifically, but it was easy enough to guess that this was a part of the family history not usually shared with the children. Perhaps, for the simple reason that Yrina was not keen to have it discussed. As for the specifics… well, if it was relevant then I could probably find out with the clues that I had been provided.

“We are discussing Alina, not her siblings.” Demarol leaned forwards. “I would not stand in the way of a genuine religious vocation, but it would be far too early to discuss that. If Alina’s talents even blossom in that direction. It must also be considered that she has exalted in the Earth-aspect which is less than common within our House… and unique so far within my household. I would be glad of any counsel as to what schools might be best suited to such aptitudes as are common to her aspect.”

“Ah.” Elana noted that point and sat back. “A fair point and one that I don’t believe any of us here are precisely suited to address. Unless I’m mistaken about someone’s aspect here?”

Yrina shook her head thoughtfully. “I have reviewed all the schools in the area around Juche recently, with three children enrolling. While I would like to send Alina somewhere that she has family to support her, I would not recommend sending her with Hunt or Doreg. Childish frictions are best left at home, not taken to such public venues.”

“There will be quite enough friction there, after all,” agreed Demarol. Both he and Yrina gave Serakan telling looks.

“What of the other boy their age – what’s his name. The one who sang the ballad about General Arada?”

“Nalan is enrolled in a school noted for its musical programme,” Awyne informed her. “It’s suited to him but not really to Alina’s talents.”

“Ah.”

Erasa steepled her fingers. “I am aware that I have not always been entirely supportive of the decision to adopt Alina. I realise that may make my next suggestion suspicious but I assure you that I’m basing it on her best interests, not in a position that I now see was incorrect: perhaps it would be best to look at schools further away from Juche if there’s one that meets her needs better.”

“Do you have a school in mind?” Demarol gave his oldest daughter – or oldest remaining daughter, I corrected myself – a curious look.

She shook her head. “Not specifically, but it occurs to me that now that the household is better established it may be time to reconsider our policy of schooling all our children in the immediate area. It does not do well for us to be too far removed from the rest of the House.”

Demarol narrowed his eyes but Erasa didn’t quail before him. “Perhaps,” he said, his tone suggesting that only the company made him bend even that far. “However…”

“A worthwhile line of thinking.” Arada made a face. “I’m not going to try to dictate to you, but the elders do like to keep us under their thumbs.”

“I did not think that you were in the habit of bowing to them.”

The old general humped irascibly. “I throw them a bone every now and then. Enough that to show that I’m at least still loyal to the house.”

My father stiffened. “As we all are.”

Serakan smiled victoriously. “No one here doubts that, Demarol. But you are here, far from the heartlands of Tepet power. And there is some question about how much you follow the traditions of our house. I do not doubt that you do much for us by maintaining relations here with the other Great Houses, but the core strength of House Tepet has always been the legions and there your household’s participation has been… well, it would be surprisingly active for some houses.”

But not for House Tepet. Looked at that way, the possibility that Demarol’s status among the leaders of House Tepet was wavering was very real. As the head of an independent household he was second only to the elders – the remaining children of Tepet himself, all of them semi-retired now. Arada was a grandson, nephew and cousin to the heads of most of the other households while I knew that I was growing up inside the youngest and thus the smallest such branch of the House.

Until now I had not seriously considered how vulnerable that should make us.

“I do not hold back my children from military service. I myself served for forty years and with distinction.”

“Aye.” Arada said no more, but he met Demarol’s gaze evenly.

“There is no question that we are Tepet, first and last.” Yrina took her husband’s forearm in her hand, restraining him slightly. “If some of the elders need a reminder, sending one of our children to a school their own fledglings attend is not a bad way to remind them. If it is suitable, of course.”

“I am sure Elana has some memory of Fourth Scion Academy,” offered Serakan, “She was a student there for a while…”

Elana rolled her eyes. “Yes, a century or so ago. And I was hardly minded to take its merits and flaws into account at the time, even if they are the same.”

“I know very little of it,” admitted Awyne. “And we must decide quickly. If we’re to send Alina halfway across the Blessed Isle, we have to communicate with them in the next few days and goodness knows how we can get her there in time for term. It’s in Lord’s Crossing Dominion, I assume?”

“A day or so south of the city by coach,” Arada informed her. “I cannot say I know much of the place, but I have heard nothing to its discredit which is something.”

That was an awfully weak testimony for it, but Awyne wasn’t wrong that this would have to be arranged very quickly. Now that I thought about it, they might need to pay a sorcerer to send word to the school, and find one who knew someone at the school to do that. It was quite a logistical challenge.

“Perhaps we should wait a year and look at sending Opiha to school in Lord’s Crossing,” murmured Yrina thoughtfully.

“That’s entirely reasonable,” admitted Demarol, “But we still have to consider where to school Alina. If there’s somewhere suitable around Juche then I have no issues passing this to Opiha, but the only place I can think of is the Blood of Heroes Academy and if you remember how much trouble they gave us over admitting Icole.”

“Yes, did you ever find out why that was a problem?”

Demarol sighed. “I believe one of the Ragara has more influence there then I was aware and there was that banking legislation before the Deliberative at the time.”

Yrina looked irritated. “But you were supporting the Ragara on that?”

“Yes, but only so I could gather information for their opposition which he suspected – and now of course he knows it.”

I blinked. That sounded like it could make life hard for Icole if the staff had it in for him. Although maybe it was just the admissions that were under Ragara influence, it would depend and…

Also, there was not a thing that I could do about it, I reminded myself. So, there was literally no point in getting involved in that situation. I’d just have to trust the adults of the household to look out for his interests.

They were doing a wonderful job of it so far, leaving him to sort out his own letter of recommendation to the House of Bells. But maybe that was just a test. I hoped it was just a test.

“Given how little time there is,” Elana mused. “Perhaps explore two options. Whichever school around Juche seems best given the constraints but also, one of my comrades attended Root and Reed School which is also near Lord’s Crossing. He went on to the Cloister of Wisdom, a year or so after I did and I know he’s still on good terms with the staff because one of his children went there. I wouldn’t say they’re the best school for martial arts, but they’re better than most.”

“How wonderful that you’re considering children’s education dear.” Serakan’s voice was snide but Demarol was nodding.

“It’s a practical position to take,” he agreed. “Blood of Heroes would be impractical but there’s that newer school west of Juche that’s been looking for potential dynastic admissions. If Root and Reed falls through, I’m fairly sure they’d take a late admission.”

And just like that, the plan was decided. All that was needed now was to get an exchange of messages with Root and Reed School, a place I’d never heard of, and my future was in motion.

It was a pity I still didn’t know which way that coin would fall though. I’d better give Opiha some warning though, it looked as if she’d be on her own as the only child out of diapers in the courtyard. And sole recipient of all the tutor’s attention, the poor girl.

Of course, she might enjoy that. Was I overestimating her fondness for me? She’d be the centre of attention…

On balance, I decided I’d rather she was happy about it. After all, I’d still be sharing a room with her for the next few days.

The verdict came back astonishingly fast: on terms that I wasn’t informed of but that I suspected included a substantial financial endowment, Root and Reed School was delighted to welcome an underage student from the Tepet Demarol household.

And with that I was swept up in a veritable whirlwind of preparations.

My feet hardly seemed to touch the ground as Yrina and several of her servants practically moved into the children’s courtyard and started working through what I’d need to take and what they’d need to acquire. Meanwhile, Shoku and Nolly were trying to cram as much extra knowledge into my head before I left.

I can only hide behind that to excuse the fact that I only found out I was leaving with about five minute’s warning.

“Opiha!” I called out, breaking away before Yrina could almost drag me away. “I’m off to school.”

The white-haired girl grabbed me in a fierce hug. “I’m going to be so lonely without you.”

“I’ll miss you too. I’ll write as often as I can.”

“Come along, we’re on a tight schedule.” Yrina caught my arm and pulled me along. “You’ll get used to separations like this. And you’ll be back for next summer.”

Opiha waved as I followed Yrina obediently out of the courtyard and to the stables. Within moments, without so much as a goodbye from my father, I was helped aboard a chariot and it clattered out of the estate and onto the high road down to Juche.

I had never been to the city before. In this life I’d barely ever left the estate and in my previous life there had been no particular reason to. It was a large and vibrant city but it had no particular strategic value.

Juche Prefecture, from which the city took its name (or vice versa, I honestly don’t know), was one of several in the basin of the Imperial River and the geomancy was far too important for heavy development or a large population. As a result, we saw very few people as the chariot, followed by a second carrying Yrina’s maids, reached the road and my lawful-mother shook out the reins and pushed the horses into a trot.

Not a canter or a gallop, that would wear the horses out before we got anywhere useful, but a trot that made it clear that she was entirely serious about getting to Juche as fast as was practically possible.

“It almost seems yesterday that Demarol brought you in,” she noted to me as we went past a stone marker that indicated the edge of the estate. “I can’t say I am given to sentiment, but I did not expect that you would be leaving in such a fashion.”

I said nothing and she looked down at me. “You are allowed to speak. This may be your last chance to ask questions of anyone in the household, so take it.”

Looking over the side of the chariot I tried to put my mind in order. What to ask… “How will I get to Lord’s Crossing? It’s quite a distance.”

“It is indeed. Fortunately, I know a man who has business there and he has agreed to take you.”

I arched an eyebrow and then, since I’d been given free license to enquire, pointed out: “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t answer my question.”

“He’s a sorcerer and he’ll fly you there.” She didn’t seem impatient with the query.

“Does he live in Juche?”

“No, he’ll meet us there. We have to buy your uniforms and a few other items, so it makes sense to get that done on the way.” Yrina cracked a thin smile. “Demarol isn’t fond of Mako so I see no need for their paths to cross.”

The name meant nothing to me so I guessed that this sorcerer had never been a guest. In fact, I could think of few sorcerers who had been guests. Whether that was Demarol’s general preference or his bowing to the popular perception of sorcerers as dangerous and potentially unstable, I really couldn’t guess.

“Do you have any other questions?”

Nothing sprang to mind, but I got the impression that she wanted me to ask something so I turned it around on her: “What advice would you feel best to give me, going away to school for the first time.”

“You were always clever. Nolly calls you bright, but I don’t think that that’s exactly the word.” Yrina snapped the reins at some – perceived or accurate – slowing by the horses. “Case in point, dropping Doreg into trouble over those sweets, years ago.”

She remembered that? And she’d noticed?

My concern must have shown and that crease of a smile became a smirk. “Little Alina… no, you’re going to school now. Alina, I’m more than a hundred years old and I have raised children before. It was a good ploy, well executed and if Doreg couldn’t cope with it then he deserved to carry the consequences of failure. But compared to a school that was child’s play. Don’t expect to get away with such things when the authorities have less reason to be sympathetic. Remember, any quarrels that get out of hand there can spread to the families of those involved so the teachers will want to resolve them quickly. And that will matter far more to them than the lessons that can be taught from the situations.”

I hung my head. And I’d thought I was passing clever. Hopefully she didn’t also know of last year’s escapade sneaking into the Manse.

“You’ll meet children from other house and households at school,” she continued after a moment. “The Great Houses of the Dynasty and lesser patrician houses, but they all families and if you are wise you won’t make any issues that need to come home to any of them. A short-term gain at the expense of bringing outside interest is never wise at school. Better to manage situations such that they can be handled within the school.”

“Some of my classmates will take issues out of school though,” I pointed out. “How do I handle them?”

“Just remember that you can always repay them later when you’ve graduated. You have an advantage,” Yrina reminded me, “Of already being Exalted. Any that don’t exalt will be easily dealt with later. The luckier few will be your peers and rivals anyway. The key point is not to draw the wrath of their more powerful elders until you’re well established. Everyone will want to tear you down for exalting so early anyway.”

I shook my head. “So, I’m going into a battlefield with few allies and every hand against me.”

“Does that frighten you?”

I considered that and shook my head. “Only a little. It’s what the rest of my life’s going to be like, isn’t it?”

“Exactly!” Yrina pulled the reins lightly as we reached a corner and turned on to the larger highway to Juche. Reflecting the sparse population, even this wide road wasn’t very heavily trafficked – mostly it was just carts carrying produce to feed the city.

The rest of the conversation was trivialities, Yrina quizzing me on the other Tepet Households that I might encounter at Root and Reed School. Besides those from the main palace in Lord’s Crossing, Marek and Vergus were the oldest and most powerful, established by Tepet’s daughters. As such despite not residing in the palace their leaders were counted among the elders of the house.

The other households were founded by Arada’s generation and thus far more senior and populous than the Demarol household. However, they were also further away in location so it wasn’t all that likely that scions of their lineages would be attending a school near Lord’s Crossing. Manses weren’t that easy to come by.

Yrina touched the hearthstone in her tiara as if in reminder of the trophy that she held. I was tempted to ask how Demarol had managed to obtain control of the manse and thus the ability to form a household away from the main Tepet household but it probably wasn’t immediately relevant to my school experience and was probably best left to ask my father sometime that I wanted to sweeten him up by encouraging him to boast.

Before the sun was fully high in the sky, we reached the edge of Juche. There was a wall despite the fact that I was sure no one had seriously threatened the city with military action in the lifetime of… well, of the Scarlet Empress. The Blessed Isle had been subdued largely by her control of the Imperial Manse and a willingness to use its First Age weapons against any aggressor trying to cross the Blessed Isle.

Perhaps House Manosque’s rebellion had threatened it? Only a suicidal moron would have tried to use major war machines near the essence flows that linked the Imperial Manse to the Imperial Mountain. But he had possessed, or so it was said, the Eye of Autochthon. I’d encountered that ancient treasure once and I could fully believe that a sorcerer with that at hand might have been able to somehow divert the flows to prevent the use of the Imperial Manse against him.

Of course, it would also have explained why his army suddenly fell upwards into the sky and perished to the last man. It would have been just as easy for him to accidentally turn half the Blessed Isle into an oceanic grave so we might have escaped lightly there.

The city resembled others of the Realm – roughly circular with the government palace and other administrative buildings in the centre. Rather than going there, Yrina brought the chariot to a comparatively modest mansion in what seemed to be a wealthy suburb. I saw the mon of the Tepet Demarol household carved into the gateposts and realised that this must be the townhouse maintained for when one of the family was staying in Juche.

Rather than entering, Yrina waited only long enough for her chariot and that of the servants to be handed over to the stable hands before we were off again, this time on foot.

“I would prefer a palanquin,” she confided. “If only for appearances’ sake. But we don’t have time to arrange them and I think you’re sturdy enough to manage a walk even in the noon heat.”

Until she’d mentioned it, I hadn’t realised how warm it was. The mention though reminded me that the sun was high in a clear sky and it wasn’t late enough for the shadow of the Meru to be cast over the city.

I had some hopes of a meal and perhaps something cool to drink, but Yrina had other things in mind and we crossed the shopping district around the palace at a quick march before entering the shade of a boutique. We were at least out of the crowds (they might have parted around Yrina but I was far less imposing and if I’d lost my grip on her hand, I could have been easily lost) and the dressmaker’s shop had awnings over an inner courtyard, along with a fountain that looked refreshingly cool. I would have loved to sit on the edge and cool my feet in it.

“My lady, how may I serve you,” the mistress of the establishment greeted us with formality and no mention at all of how unexpected our presence must have been.

The dynast looked down at her – the dressmaker was a rather small woman, even if she towered over me – and favoured her with a smile. “My daughter Alina will be flown to Lord’s Crossing tonight to spend Calibration there before starting her new school. We have essentially this afternoon for you to make her uniforms. I have the specifications.”

The mortal’s eyes went wide. “In one afternoon? My lady, I am…”

Yrina gestured sharply. “Lotus Stem, how long have you been making dresses for me?”

“May I assume that it is a rhetorical question, my lady? We mortals do not age as gracefully.” The woman bit her lip nervously. “May I see the uniform requirements?”

One of the servants handed over a folded parchment and Lotus Stem whistled sharply, a number of younger women emerging from workshops around the courtyard. “Take the young lady’s measurements,” she ordered absently.

Two of them produced measuring tapes and descended on me like vultures. Polite but insistent demands had me stretch in whatever ways they instructed so they could explore my dimensions. I haven’t felt so exposed since I was old enough to wipe my own backside – and I was still fully clad.

Lotus Stem was holding the parchment in one hand, the other drumming fingers against that forearm. “I must be honest, my lady,” she said at last. “I can run up tunics and jackets in time for you, but the pants and – I assume you want a slightly larger set to allow for growth over the year?”

“Correct. They are slightly less urgent so long as we can have them sent before Ascending Air is out. Lord’s Crossing is not the coldest of cities but it is too high to be warm.”

The dressmaker nodded. “Then I am glad that we shall be able to accommodate you, so long as your daughter doesn’t mind having them pinned up on her as we measure. There will be no time for mannequins.”

“Of course.”

I was naturally not consulted. On the other hand, there was something to having a first-hand look at how they worked. Clearly these were dedicated professionals and I might learn something new. Unlikely, but not unknown. No one can be good at everything, not even the Exalted.

Yrina paused after assenting to that request. “The surcoats cannot wait though.”

“The surcoats… for Exalted students?” Lotus Stem paled. “My highest congratulations, my Exalted lady!” She was not addressing Yrina.

The two girls measuring me froze in apparent terror. “Please continue, we’re in some haste,” I ordered them.

“May I enquire as to the Immaculate Dragon that has blessed you,” enquired Lotus Stem respectfully.

“Pasiap,” I answered. The Immaculate Dragon of Earth may or may not have existed, but far more mortals knew of his name than of Urwl or the other great elementals that had once given their powers to the Terrestrial Exalted.

The dressmaker sighed in relief. “White silk then, I was afraid… well, we can manage.”

Yrina smiled and waved. “I will collect the other items needed and return before the evening meal.”

The mortals all bowed deeply towards her and I realised as my mother and one of the servants left that I probably wasn’t going to get any lunch. I was a growing girl! Didn’t she know that?

“If my Exalted lady will come with me and do me the favour of…”

I held one hand up to Lotus Stem. “You want me in a workshop and stripped so you can dress me up?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Fine. Can someone get me something to nibble on between my being stitched up?”

If I’m going to have to deal with the problems of being Exalted, I may as well enjoy some of the benefits.

Flying across Creation had been somewhat less exciting you might think, given that the sun was already setting by the time Yrina handed me off to Mako, clutching a case that wasn’t quite as large as me but felt as if it was.

To my relief the sorcerer was not proposing to carry me in using the most known spell for long distance flight, Stormwind Rider, which would have left me essentially clinging to him for the entire ride. The bald sorcerer was all bones and long limbs, looking emaciated beneath robes that had clearly been expensive once.

Nor did he use a demon to transport us, a common practise but one that left me feeling queasy. To my great relief, he was able to cast a spell that summoned a cloud to carry us the distance to Lord’s crossing in only six hours.

There was little but blackness beneath us for the early part of the flight and Mako largely ignored me, save for terse instructions not to test exactly where the edge of the ‘cirrus skiff’ was. I accepted this as good advice and sat down on my case to meditate. The last thing I wanted to do was distract the man – he might steer us into a mountain by accident. (I know now that the Cirrus Skiff is a self-navigating spell that has no risk of that, but it’s not one I had made much use of myself before, having never learned it myself).

Lord’s Crossing Dominion was more populated than Juche Prefecture. More towns and small farmsteads. I tried not to dwell on the fact that the sprawling plantations around my family’s estate are mostly tended by slaves. As with so many evils, there was nothing I could do about it yet. Even if I joined the anti-slavery party who advocated ending the practise and more concretely freed every slave they legally could, it would accomplish very little.

Graduate first, I reminded myself. Social engineering and economic revolution can come later. Slavery on plantations and mines weren’t the worst of it, but at least in the Realm slaves could only be owned by the Exalted so there was some constraint and regulation to work with.

The few days in the Tepet Palace in Lord’s Crossing weren’t all that eventful. The other children had all either left already for their schools or were in the final stages of packing. Most of the elders were also absent, attending various celebrations of Calibration. The decision to have a summer gathering at my father’s hosting had pulled most of the more sociable Tepet away from the palace and thus the party there was relatively reserved.

And being too young to participate in most of it, I delved into the library while I had the chance.

Tepet Jita, the oldest son of Tepet, saw me off on a coach to Root and Reed School. I was not, as it happened, the only student being sent but each of us was sent in a coach of our own. It was an important matter of prestige, or so it seemed. The old dynast was wizened and white of hair. I suspected that he was still a tough nut, but most Dragon-Blooded only live for two or three centuries. If he was of an age with his siblings then I had to suspect that the House might see a rapid change in its leadership before very much longer.

I read as we travelled, reminded as I did so of how little I enjoyed poorly sprung coaches on even the relatively decent roads of the Blessed Isle. The book I’d been allowed to take out of the family library was a history of House Tepet, starting with the great deeds of Tepet himself that had elevated the general to the point that the Scarlet Empress herself chose him as a consort. And then he died mysteriously within a few years of her actual husband. Hmm. ‘Mysterious’ indeed.

Still, being well versed in Tepet history would serve well if I was supposed to be evidence that Demarol was indeed a true and loyal son of the Great House.

The entrance to the school was a bit chaotic, with over a hundred students all arriving at once, many with servants. It was a pleasant looking building – no manse, but practically built with five wings radiating out from a domed central building. Ivy had been allowed to climb the walls facing the triangular space between the two wings framing the entrance. I had noted, however, that the other wings didn’t have that garnishment.

Disembarking at last, I checked I hadn’t forgotten anything. Not that it would have been easy to leave anything behind, given that my case was all I had brought besides the school uniform I wore. Presumably the other clothes Lotus Stem was making for me would catch up at some point.

All around me were taller children wearing basically the same uniform that I was. Root and Reed students wore calf-length white tunics under green bolero jackets marked with the mon of our respective families. Quite a number of the students I saw were wearing the green pants permitted for colder weather, but they were a minority.

Even more of a minority were those who wore surcoats over their tunics and beneath their jackets, the way that I did. Four of the five elemental colours were represented, only the black of water being absent. Not a hard feat when there weren’t even ten students wearing that mark of exaltation.

As I disembarked, I was jostled heavily by a larger girl pulling a much larger case. I would go so far as to call it a trunk in fact.

“Do watch where you’re going,” the girl snorted. “Are you sure you’re old enough to be here?”

I picked up my case from where I’d had to let go of it to keep my balance. “I don’t recall being given a say in the matter. Were you?

She turned and examined me as if I’d crawled out from under a rock. The mon on her jacket looked like the fletching of an arrow. House Sesus, one of the other great martial Houses and a particular rival of House Tepet. Her eyes widened. “Oh, you poor girl, get that surcoat off before someone sees it,” she declared in a carrying voice. “Only Exalted students are supposed to wear them. Did you think just because it was white that no one would see it against your tunic?”

I folded my arms. “Couldn’t see me a moment ago, now you can’t hear a question. Are you subject to some disabilities? If you need assistance in your daily life, surely a servant should have been assigned.”

Her eyes snapped but we were interrupted before it could go any further by a girl wearing a blue surcoat. “Ah, you’re both new, aren’t you? Do move along so that other coaches can unload. If you’re not sure where to go, the first-year dorms are through the left entrance.”

The Sesus girl forced a smile. “Of course, and thank you. Come along little one, I’ll see you taken care of.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The Air-aspect – at least according to the surcoat she wore – smiled in a pro forma fashion. “Alina is of my house and Tepet care for their own.”

“Well clearly not if someone let her dress up as if she was Exalted.”

I was tempted to demonstrate but it occurred to me that she might be trying to provoke just such a display. An unrestrained anima banner would be disruptive to everyone else arriving and not the sort of impression that I wanted to make.

“Perhaps you are uninformed,” the older student said, then turned abruptly towards me, her long dark hair almost but not quite flicking into the face of the Sesus. “My apologies for not greeting you in Lord’s Crossing, Alina. My name is Tepet Iyuki and I am the only Exalted daughter of Tepet already attending the Root and Reed School. Your father wrote to mine, asking that I provide guidance to you while we are both students.”

“Please don’t worry about not meeting me at the palace,” I assured her. “Calibration is an inconvenient time for me to have arrived, particularly with so little notice.”

“Nonetheless, no Tepet should ever feel that they have not been made welcome.” Iyuki bowed again. “It’s wonderful to meet the newest Dragon-Blood to rise from our House.”

The other girl made a choking sound. “You mean you really are Exalted?”

I gave her a very bland look and curtseyed slightly. “Tepet Demarol Alina, Child of Pasiap. And you might be…?”

The same deportment I’d been taught had clearly been hammered into her, for she returned the gesture. “Sesus Lyta.” She looked me over again. “You’re so young to receive the dragon’s blessing, I thought it almost unheard of for an eight-year-old.”

“That is indeed true,” agreed Iyuki with an almost malicious cheer. “But Alina has received early admission due to her age, Lyta. She turned seven in the summer, while hunting boar in Juche.”

“We were hunting deer,” I corrected as Lyta flushed dangerously. “The boar merely… intruded. It would be rather reckless for someone my age to hunt boar intentionally.”

Iyuki rested one hand possessively on my shoulder. “I should show you to the Exalted dorms, Alina. They’re through the entrance on the right.”

Most of the students were moving through the entrance into the central building but I noted that what Iyuki had said was holding up so far. Of the exceptions, it was those children closest to my own age that were taking the turn into the wing on our left while a boy wearing a red surcoat had entered the building on our right.

The older girl ushered me through the door and into the interior, which seemed unreasonably dark compared to the bright sunlight outside. “Welcome to the Root and Reed School,” she added once we were inside. “And thank you for staying calm as she goaded you. One of the first things we’re taught as Exalted is to control our anima. Home may be different, but flaring it in public is aggressive at best and rude at worst. Particularly around other children who may not know better than to try to touch it.”

I winced at the thought. Preventing an active banner from wounding everyone who came into contact with it was possible but well outside the typical levels of control. Exaltation had pushed me into the third mortal plateau of essence mastery but that was as far as most Exalted ever went and it would take until the fifth and final plateau short of the immortal courts before I could reliably choose to exclude someone from the injury done by my anima banner when it activated. “Does that happen often?”

“Not really, but there’s always a chance that someone has got it into her head that all that it takes to awaken their inheritance of Exaltation is close contact.” Iyuki shook her head disdainfully. “Do not accept any requests that you’re even slightly unsure of about touching you. The teachers will warn the other first years but you can only easily lead a mortal to water, making them listen is much harder.”

“I’ll try not to hurt anyone. Not even Sesus Lyta.”

The older Tepet gave me an approving look. “Her parents are both Exalted, so it would be problematic if you did. She’s also one of the oldest of this year’s students – she’ll turn nine in a week or so. If she does exalt soon, you could be sharing the wing with her for years.”

So almost two full years my elder. Joy.

Iyuki and I weren’t the only Tepet studying at Root and Reed, we were just the only other Exalted from our family, I discovered.

After breakfast in the dining hall of the rooms set aside for Exalted, Iyuki handed me off to a short-haired girl with very contained body-language. I had some admiration for her control – with the way I was growing, my arms and legs seemed to be different lengths almost every practise. But never by increments enough to change that I was almost certainly the smallest student in the school.

“Ayama, this is our newest Exalted relative,” Iyuki greeted the girl with a sweeping gesture. “I need to get to literature class, so can you show her to the dojo? You’re in that wing this morning.”

The girl bobbed her head in silent acceptance.

“Alina, this is Tepet Berel Ayama. She’s the shining star of the second-year class for martial arts.”

“Haven’t started second year classes yet,” Ayama clarified quietly. “Someone might have improved or Exalted.”

“Until that happens, then. If you don’t first.” Iyuki reached over and casually brushed the other girl’s fringe into slightly neater order before departing.

Ayama gave me a thoughtful look and then raised her hand very slightly to indicate we should descend the stairs of the main building. “Has Iyuki orientated you?”

“A little. Three wings are classrooms at the far end, dorms at the near end. The other two are classrooms at the near end with stables or the dojo at the far end respectively.” I pointed to indicate which was which.

She bobbed her head as she had before. “Older students’ room are in the Fire Wing, while Exalted and senior staff rooms are in the Air Wing. First years and any other students who there isn’t room for are in Earth. The dojo is Water and the stables in Wood.”

That made sense. “Are you going to the dojo as well?”

“No.” She paused and then, with almost visible effort added: “Mathematics.”

“Ah, so two of my preferred subjects are in the Water Wing. Good to know.”

Ayama gave me a look. “It’s harder than you’re used to.”

“Hopefully.” At a guess the classes were generally taught in whichever wing matched the elements they were considered to be philosophically aligned with, thus Iyuki moving towards the far end of Air Wing for literature while the two of us were going the other way.

On the ground floor it was easy enough to find the passageway leading into Water Wing, carvings in the walls indicating the appropriate element.

Ayama stopped at a classroom near the end, the door open and other students evidently within. “The door at the end,” she directed and turned back towards the door. Then she paused as if a thought had just hit her, turned and bowed to me. “Good fortune.”

“And to you.”

There was a hint of hot cheeks as she withdrew into the classroom. I wondered why. It couldn’t be that I was Exalted, she seemed quite alright with Iyuki.

Well, it might become clear later. Or not, depending on how well we get on. But it would be nice to make some more friends here. As I’d learned with Nalan and Doreg, having a friend was much better than an enemy. And I seemed to have at least one enemy here already.

Yrina had predicted that but hopefully it wouldn’t just be the Tepet that I got along with. That was a very small group out of the student body.

I opened the dojo door and entered. A dozen or so students were already waiting at the near end.

“That’s her,” a voice I knew identified.

Was Lyta gossiping about me? Watch me exhibit my surprised face.

I glanced casually in that direction and only barely saw a hand heading for my face.

Yikes! I folded my legs and dropped under it. The boy throwing the punch had way more momentum than he should have put into it so I was elbowing him below the ribs before he tumbled over me.

“What was -”

He was up again though, face set and determined. “You’re not getting away!”

“I’m not -” I backed away as he launched a flurry of swings, his arms far longer than mine. “- trying to get away.”

“Liar!” He raised his hands, wrapped one hand around the other fist and tried to bring it down like a sledgehammer on my head.

I caught his blow with one hand, tapping my essence to block it. Ouch, that took more effort than I wanted, but against someone this much bigger than me I needed the support.

Then I jabbed him again, more or less where I’d tagged him earlier. He barely flinched, which was distressing. Just what was this fellow made of?

Pulling back, he threw a clumsy spin-kick, trying to catch me off-guard by switching tactics. I rode the charm I’d already used to block it with my forearm. Should I go harder?

No, bad idea. It would be far too easy to kill him and I was far more curious about what was going on that feeling…

He used the brace of my arm to kick off and brought his other knee around into my back. Blocking something from that angle wasn’t going to happen.

Okay, I thought as I skidded across the polished wood. Maybe feeling a little more threatened now.

He didn’t seem angry as much as desperate. “Do you want - ?”

“Face justice!” He tried a leg sweep as I turned. If that hit me then I... okay, go with it!

I let him kick me and it sent me flying across the dojo. The more this played out, the more chance there was that I had to tap enough essence to ignite my anima banner. And at that point the teachers would likely take a hand.

Just because I let him get the kick in didn’t mean I was out of control. The lack of resistance on my part had surprised him and given me enough distance to look the room over. No one else seemed inclined to get involved, most of the kids as shocked as I had been. And I was the only Exalt in the room, unless someone had forgotten their surcoat.

“What are you -” Another block and I kicked his knee. It might as well have been solid wood! “- doing this for?”

He locked onto my arms, bearing down on me with his height and weight. “I heard what you did.”

“I kind of doubt that.”

I swan kicked up into his upper thigh. Not his groin, partly because I didn’t want to do permanent damage (if I could!) but also because I wasn’t sure I had the range. He flinched, which was understandable and something of a relief. I was wondering if I was doing something massively wrong, but I suppose he was just that tough.

Then I collapsed my other leg and rolled backwards, pinwheeling him back and into the wall of the dojo. There was quite a crash.

“What is going on here?” demanded a burly man in an immaculate style robe.

I grabbed my assailant’s shoulder and helped him up, making sure he saw that there was an adult present. Huh, Tepet mon on the boy’s jacket… “I’m sorry, sifu. My cousin and I were roughhousing and we got a little too enthusiastic.”

The man scowled at us and then almost seemed to teleport across the room, securing a firm grip on each of us. Good grief, he had to be either enlightened or Exalted from the way he pulled us back to the others and then gave us a push that put both of us up against the wall.

“As it’s your first day, I’ll call this a warning,” the sifu growled. “There is no roughhousing, horseplay or unsupervised sparring in my dojo. I am here to teach the right and proper ways to use your hands, your feet and the rest of your bodies. It is not playtime.”

I bowed. “I apologise, sir. It will not happen again.”

The boy next to me did the same.

For a long moment the sifu stared down at us and then he turned away. “I will hold you to that. Now, we will begin with a warm-up. Spread out and adopt the crab stance.”

As we obeyed, I stayed next to the boy and murmured, “Tepet Demarol Alina,” when the sifu was at the far end of the group. “And you?”

“Tepet Vergus Udano.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Why did you cover for me?”

“We’re both Tepet. As upright soldiers, we should stand shoulder to shoulder.”

He frowned, an expression that seemed to come naturally to him. But it was more one of thought than disagreement. We both watched the sifu circle the class, barking instructions as we slowly moved from warm-ups to some basic kata.

“I… you were adopted, I heard.”

“I was born to Lord Demarol’s secretary. He claims I am his daughter; I assume he knows.” Well, actually it seemed damned unlikely I was his unless mother had been lying. But I had no justifiable way of knowing it.

Hmm. Now that I thought about it, my mother was probably in Juche. I wonder if I’d been anywhere near her. Was that one reason Yrina didn’t stop at the townhouse?

“Lady Yrina agreed to the adoption and she’s the only mother I know,” I finished.

Udano studied the floor. “I see. I… apologise. I had…” His face twisted. “It was suggested that you had entered the household and laid claim to the proper exaltation of a Tepet born there.”

If the kata had allowed for it, I’d have pinched the bridge of my nose to deal with the building stress. “Politely, Udano, you’re a dumbass. Exaltation is fated. No one can take the exaltation of someone else.”

“I apologise,” he said again, not looking up.

I glanced at him as the kata next naturally directed our attention in the right direction. “Apology accepted. You may be a dumbass but you’re a Tepet dumbass and we look after our own.”

The boy started, getting a snapped reprimand from the sifu but when he looked back at me, he smiled shyly. It really looked wrong on his face, I suspected he was naturally solemn. “Thank you. Cousin.”

“It’s fine. Want to spar when he lets us? Sifu only said there was no unsupervised sparring.”

“Really?”

“Sure, it’s not as if there are any Exalted. You’re pretty good.”

I wasn’t sure, but I thought I might have made a friend. Now if I could do so outside my own House, I might actually get somewhere.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Excellent addition.
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Descending Water

I’d thought there would be workshops in the Earth Wing but stretching a point, all the Wings had something I’d call a workshop. I’m stretching a point there, the ‘workshop’ in the Water Wing was the main kitchen for the school, but it doubled as a classroom.

Teaching students to cook wasn’t a very high priority since almost all of us grew up with servants, but there was enough of a gourmand tradition in the Realm that we were expected to know the basics of high cuisine… and how to cook on a fire in a camp because active military service or at least long journeys into the wilds were an even stronger tradition.

For some reason, the teaching staff were hesitant to let a seven-year-old work with glass, hot metal or sharp wood-working tools so I got to split my arts and crafts class between sewing lessons and cooking.

I’m really not opposed to the former, it’s a practical skill, but cooking… There’s a very real truth to the adage that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, figuratively. Honestly, once you’re using essence, human ribs are hardly a barrier if you absolutely feel you have to rip someone’s heart out.

It’s not my preference, too showy, but some deathknights and green sun princes feel differently.

Most of them I met found out that it’s a mistake to try that against me - they weren’t up against just human ribs, but a body reinforced by essence.

But outside of actually fighting, a good meal could benefit more than bodies. It’s hard to put a number to how much a good feast could do a diplomatic conference, but there was ample evidence that negotiators with a stomach full of tasty food would be less highly strung and more likely to look at those they’d just shared a meal with tolerance.

There was quite a crowd of first year students outside the classroom door, I noticed as I looked away from the oven. They were held back by only two powers – firstly that Udano was looming in the doorway and secondly that Iyuki was wearing an apron at my side.

If this went on much longer, then both their powers combined might not be sufficient though. The kitchen staff would need the oven soon to begin preparing the evening meal.

With due deliberation I squinted into the oven, past the grille that provided just a little visibility through the metal door. “It’s time.”

There was some yelping from the door. “What are you all doing here again?”

“Yeah, what’s so special about Alina acting like a servant?” a second girl asked.

Iyuki looked tempted to go out and address those comments but I gestured for her to focus on what she was doing.

Wearing heavy gloves, we opened the oven and pulled the trays out. I was glad to see that the light inside the oven hadn’t misled me. The timing had been right.

“Now we just need a few minutes for these to settle,” I decided. “This looks good, Iyuki.”

She wiped her brow and adjusted the scarf holding her long hair back. “This was nerve-wracking. Where did you learn to cook like this?”

In a ruined flying city of the First Age, I thought. Where the winged People of the Air had been enslaved by the Raksha for centuries, each generation murdered as soon as they had borne the next. But that would be really hard to explain.

“My father’s household entertains a great deal,” I said instead. “We weren’t formally taught but there was plenty of opportunity to watch the cooks work. Now it’s time to put these on plates and you can take them to the real judges.”

“Do we have to share them?” she asked wryly. “I feel like these are trophies of a kind.”

“They really won’t last,” I reminded her. “And if you don’t give them at least a share then you’ll probably start a riot.”

“Clever girl.” She reached over and ruffled my hair, pulling the scarf around my own head loose.

I picked up the racks once Iyuki had moved the snacks across to a large plate we’d prepared and headed for the sinks. I’d washed everything else while the baking was going on.

There was an outcry from the door as Udano stepped back to let Iyuki out. I hoped that the two of them managed to keep some of the food for themselves, they’d each earned it in their way. Mind you, with that ravenous horde out there…

I shrugged and jumped up on the stool by the sink, dropping the tray into the water and reaching for a washcloth to scrub it.

“I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re cooking and cleaning,” Lyta declared. The girl was at least true to her principles and hadn’t joined the scrum trying to get more than a fair share of the treats. “You can exalt a servant’s brat but she’s still a servant at heart.”

“I’m glad that we’re at a school, Lyta.” I didn’t look back at her. “Perhaps in class you can learn some new putdowns. You know, ones that are actually a little bit insulting. Are we all not servants of her Scarlet Majesty and the Realm? To a greater or lesser degree, of course.”

If I’d looked back, I’d have had to deal with the fact that even on a stool, I wasn’t quite as tall as Lyta. She’d had a growth spurt over the winter and I…

I was beginning to think that in this life I would always be titchy. I’d not exactly been a giant in my last life but I hadn’t been short. I’d bulked up quite a bit as well over the years but I’d still been rangier than most Earth-aspected Dragon-Blooded – we naturally tend towards being powerfully built.

Hopefully I wouldn’t turn out to be an actual dwarf.

“I can see it’s no use expecting you to be respectable, but you should at least stop spreading your deviant behaviours among the other students. Goodness knows what those filthy snacks of yours taste like.”

“Musht be tewwibleah,” the indistinct voice of her companion agreed with… rather less than sincerity.

I looked back and saw that the girl was trying to cover her mouth and hide that she’d crammed something into it. I think I detected a defector to the side that had cookies. “I can’t help but wonder what you’re worried about.” Turning back, I scrubbed at the first rack. “That you’ll catch a sense of responsibility? It isn’t that easy to communicate that, unfortunately.” Satisfied I set the rack aside to drain and started cleaning the second.

“I can see there’s no use talking to you.” She whirled around and prepared to make a dramatic exit. “Come al-” I imagine that was when she saw her compatriot’s face. “What’s that in your mouth?”

The other girl swallowed. “It’s…” She wavered for a moment and then sobbed guiltily. “It’s delicious!”

“Thank Iyuki, she did all the work.” She was coming along well, I thought. If she put another ten to fifteen years in then she would be an accomplished cook. I doubted that she was quite that committed, but as it was, I thought that by her graduation she would probably have a valuable tool for reeling men in, one that might even be as effective as her looks.

“I most certainly shall not!” Lyta cried. “There will be a reckoning for this, Tepet Demarol Alina! And you, you… you traitor!”

I laid the second rack aside and hung the cloth up to drip-dry. “Yes yes, we’re terrible. I’m sure your parents will be incredibly shocked at the corrupting effects of a mere snack. By all means express your horror to them.” I untied my apron. “But in the meanwhile, we should clear out and let the kitchen staff make dinner. Trust me, you don’t want to mess with that. Greater forces than you or I will be unleashed should that happen.”

“That’s very true,” the chief cook concurred, sliding into the room past the diminishing scrum of children at the door. “Oh, very tidy. If only my own staff were so hard-working. If it wouldn’t be grossly presumptuous, I’d ask the dominie to hire you as my assistant.”

“I’m sorry,” I apologised. “But I couldn’t accept that offer – you’d be my assistant within a week and the pay cut would be too burdensome on your drinking.”

The man blinked and then laughed. “What a sacrifice we are making. Thank you for being so responsible, Lady Alina.”

“It is my privilege,” I saluted him solemnly and then gave Lyta a little push. “Come on Lyta, I promise I haven’t cooked dinner today so you don’t have to worry about profiting off House Tepet’s work anymore than you usually do.”

She snarled socially at me and stalked out. The other girl looked after her, looked back at me… I winked at her and she gave me a reluctant smile.

Iyuki handed the plates to one of the kitchen staff and gave me an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I only managed to keep one cookie Alina, do you want it.”

“Cook’s privilege,” I assured her. “It’s important you taste what you’ve cooked.”

Udano coughed into his hand and licked some crumbs off the palm. Then with his other hand he pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and revealed that he had another cookie wrapped in it.

The older Dragon-Blood smiled at us. “You have him well trained, Alina.”

He didn’t blush, only because we’d long since got used to the teasing. The first time Iyuki had suggested that, he’d actually apologised.

The letter had arrived during the day but classes were far too busy for me to have read it, so I had to wait until after dinner.

One good thing about Root and Reed School was that they had not fallen prey to the scourge that had plagued so many educational institutions. There was no ‘homework. You learned in class and the assigned study hours, but once they were over, our time was our own.

Thus, after dinner I was free to lie back on a couch in the dorm and unseal the letter. I’d had one from Opiha last week and my reply wasn’t quite finished, but if this was hers, she’d sent it rather sooner than usual.

From the outside I couldn’t tell, because all her letters were sealed by father’s secretary as a matter of course. No one else handled correspondence being sent out through the Imperial Post. But when I opened the seal and unfolded it, the hand of the writer was plainly different.

I didn’t recognise it, but when I looked down at the signature, it was no surprise that this sharp and angular writing – so different from Opiha’s looping brushwork – was Lady Yrina’s.

“Another letter from your great-niece?” asked Iyuki, entering the common room and perching herself opposite me with two letters of her own. Her ice-blue eyes flicked to the broken seal. “Or bad news from home?”

“It isn’t the best news,” I admitted.

“Nothing too serious, I hope?”

“I suppose you’ll have to judge.” I folded the letter and resisted the urge to crumple it. “My father and his great-great-great grandfather have apparently been engaged in complex discussions regarding the Demarol Household.”

Iyuki frowned, checking her memory. “Elder Jita, you mean?”

“That’s him. There’s been a certain amount of distance between my father’s household and the main Tepet household – unavoidable due to five hundred miles of separation. So, how put out would you be about not having three months freedom from me?”

“…pardon?”

“I’ll be remaining a guest in Lord’s Crossing over the summer.” I stood and went over to the desk in the corner where I kept my correspondence. The dorms were well furnished, especially here in the rooms for the Exalted, but there wasn’t a huge amount of privacy. I found my half-completed letter to Opiha and some ink.

Spreading it out, I began to update it with the change to my summer plans. Opiha would be disappointed, I knew that I was. She’d be off to her own school when the summer was ending and was endlessly curious about what my own first year had been like. I’d expected her to be bursting with questions.

“I can think of much worse things than that,” Iyuki assured me, opening her own letters. Rather than snap the seal or use a knife, she ran her finger along it, calling on her anima flux to tear it apart.

As a technique of essence, it was perhaps among the most trivial and unless your control was good, it was easy to do more damage than intended. As such, there was a certain understated boastfulness in doing it.

I had elected not to tell her that more experienced Exalted generally considered it childish. However, much essence you had, there was almost never enough for everything you wanted to do. So, using it for something you could do without it might leave you short at a critical moment.

There was no harm in Iyuki being a child while she was a student here. She might not act like it at times, but she was a few years younger than Icole. Not even in her teens yet.

“Such as?”

“Well, Lyta could exalt.”

I winced. I wasn’t entirely sure it was the same person but there had been an Exalted by the name of Lyta in the years to come. She had not been an entirely admirable person, to put it mildly. I’d fought some Solars who had been just as mad and twisted as their predecessors had been. I could very much prefer not to have to put down one of my own classmates.

On the plus side, if she did receive Terrestrial Exaltation then it would prove that it wasn’t her. The Lyta I had heard of had been among the Solar Exalted. One couldn’t have multiple exaltations. “I can think of worse things as well.”

“It spares you quite the journey,” Iyuki added, not looking up from her first letter. “It’s a long way back to Juche, about a month on the road by coach. That sorcerer that brought you to Lord’s Crossing might not be available. So, you’d be spending more time travelling than with your family.”

I almost blotted my letter at that. I hadn’t considered it at all. Other than being flown here I’d never really travelled in this life.

“I suppose it hadn’t sunk in how far away five hundred miles is,” I confessed, finishing the line and setting the brush down until my hand stopped shaking. What else was I just assuming?

It wasn’t as if I had my mechanical wings. I could make them again, but I’d need a fortune in materials, months of work… actually, without the tools and assistants I’d worked with before, more than a year of dedicated work. Not many people would be willing to pour that level of resources into even an unknown artificer’s work, much less a pre-adolescent’s. And it was a purely personal project, which could only benefit one person. Any investor would expect to receive the resultant artifact.

It would make life much easier in that respect though.

Why not wish to attain the second immortal court of cultivating one’s essence while you’re at it, I told myself.

“Looking on the bright side, I won’t have to deal with some of the other children. Poor Nalan, though.” I’d only had one letter from the younger of the two twins, but he’d indicated that he was extremely happy at his school and making friends of his own rather than having to spend all of his time competing with Doreg.

Hopefully that would bolster his confidence because he’d be outnumbered. I looked down at the letter and then picked up the brush. Maybe Opiha would back him up – or ask Icole to stand up for him if needed. It’d embarrass my musical great-nephew; but better that, than some outcomes.

Iyuki switched letters, holding the one she’d already read behind the second one. “Oh!” she exclaimed.

“Bad news?”

“Quite the reverse!” The smile that crossed her face was luminous. “My older brother exalted. We’d almost given up hope!”

I frowned, trying to place that relationship. “I don’t think I ever had the chance to meet him.”

She shook her head. “He went to sea after graduating. Mother didn’t think he’d be a good fit for primary school, but he’s a strong swimmer. Perhaps that was a sign.”

A sign of…? “He’s Chosen of Daana’d?”

“Yes.” Iyuki pressed the letter against her chest for a moment. “I’m so proud of him! He never gave up, even when everyone said he was too old to Exalt.”

I nodded. “It must have been a comfort to him to have your support. What happened exactly?”

She looked at the letter again. “He doesn’t say exactly. It was during a storm though.”

If he was lucky, it was just the perceived hazard that had been his destined moment. If not… I shivered. He might have been swept overboard. “Is he with the navy or the merchant marine.”

Iyuki’s face was indignant. “The navy of course. He’s a Tepet!”

I raised my hands. “Now now, Ayama’s household would be shocked to hear such disrespect to their contributions.”

The bulk of House Tepet’s soldiers came from the main household and three of the smaller households. The Berel and the Nerigus were more akin to the Demarol branch of the house: certainly, they produced some soldiers, but their main focus was on other matters, primarily the House’s trade interests.

The older exalt shrugged. “I suppose so. But still, however necessary that might be, where would they be without the legions and the fleets to protect their convoys?”

I gestured surrender, acknowledging her point. The only trade fleets to rival those of the Realm were that of the Guild and even those rose and fell in power and wealth as mortal traders died and passed their fortunes to less capable heirs, or political squabbles brought them down. The sheer longevity of the Dragon-Blooded leaders of the Great Houses allowed for far more stable situations, and the protection of the Realm drastically reduced the risks of merchant ventures in the threshold.

It was a situation heavily skewed against the Guild and I would admire their members for holding their own in that great game… if one of their most profitable trades weren’t the vast slave markets they operated.

I hadn’t done quite as much to hamper that business as some of my friends had, but the look on one merchant prince’s face when I told him that I was the sole arbiter of what was and was not slavery, and thus prohibited in my city, still made me smile. Even Nexus, the legendary free city of the East, grudgingly allowed the work around of indenture contracts that allowed the Guild to operate there. I was not willing to do so and I had sincerely thought the man would choke to death at the sight of hundreds of thousands of dinars of investment being liquidated for no profit when he’d he marched slave laborers to my gates in the expectation I’d pay in ancient treasures for manpower to clear the city of the jungle that had grown over much of it.

I had considered compensating him for the transportation of my new citizens, but putting any money at all into the slave trade was something I was loathe to do.

To my great frustration, Tepet Jita’s palm thrust was both telegraphed by the set of his shoulders and too fast for me to do anything about. I hit the ground, rolled and kipped up but that was another point for him.

The old man was about as dangerous as I’d guessed and I had to remind myself that being able to defeat him would be rather suspicious since he was something like fifty times my age and experience.

Although, even if I hadn’t been holding back, I wasn’t going to be the winner here.

Think of the big picture, I reminded myself. As satisfying as putting a third break in the geezer’s face would be, the real victory will be convincing him that I’m a talented youngster but nothing more suspicious than that.

I got a lock on his wrist and went for a throw but he broke my grip at the apex and turned into a graceful flip that brought him down on his feet, perfectly braced. He didn’t even make it look hard.

And then he was on me again, knocking me flat with a lightning one-two punch combo.

“Enough,” he said hoarsely as I got back on my feet. “I am satisfied.”

Yay…

He folded his arms and walked back to the table at the side of the room where the other elders were sitting. Apparently, it was the custom of the Tepet household that children would have to demonstrate what they’d learned over the school year. As if school testing was suspect. Then again, perhaps it was.

I wasn’t sure if my father did the same in his manse. No one had ever mentioned it and I would have thought that Icole would have. Then again, perhaps he simply assessed we children on how well we served when he was entertaining. It would make sense since we weren’t doing anything that servants couldn’t have done better.

“You are close to mastering the form of Terrestrial Hero style,” Jita continued, once he was seated. “For your age that is exceptionally promising. I am also pleased that you are working to integrate its use with Five Dragon style. Continue to study both and it may be worth sending you to the Cloister of Wisdom when you graduate.”

I bowed my head. “Thank you, elder.” It seemed he hadn’t noticed the moment when I slipped into Crimson Pentacle Blade style to try to catch him off guard with one of their lightning fast charges. I’d tried hard to hold back and it would have been unfortunate if they asked me who was teaching me that style.

Jita glanced at his siblings and Vergus nodded slightly. “You have done well for your age, Alina. It would be preferable if your grades in literature and music were better, but we accept that you are putting in the necessary effort to improve them in time.”

I bowed again. “Thank you for your praise, elders.”

“Your teachers made note that you were spending considerable time in the kitchens. A curious habit,” noted Marek disdainfully.

“An army marches on its stomach, elder Marek,” I offered to the head of one of the oldest Tepet households. “One of the Sesus-born students had trouble with the concept.”

That got a slight snort. “A clever answer. And while simple camp food should suffice, it is unnecessary to settle for it if one can do better. I do not disapprove.”

With eerie unison, they all swept the wax boards they’d been taking notes on clean. “You may leave,” Jita told me. “The rest of the day will be free of any duties, I think?”

That got a shake of Vergus’ head. The woman’s hair was a pale blue and she bound it back in much the same way as my father. “Serakan wishes to speak to the girl. It seems her daughter took a shine to you, Alina. She feels obligated to extend that care while Elana has returned to the ranks of her legion.”

“Of course, elders.”

I escaped the room with less relief than I had hoped. What did Serakan want? And where was she at the moment, anyway?

The Tepet palace didn’t ramble in the way mortal dwellings that had been occupied so long by a single family might. Both the demands of geomancy and the family’s martial traditions had led to the manse being kept in its original form: two perfectly circular curtain walls, each pierced by five drum-towers, while the centre was a cluster of taller but narrower towers.

Gardens and guest houses filled the space between the two walls, while more personal dwellings dotted courtyards and training fields within the inner wall. The entire manse had a larger footprint than the Demarol estate and it was easy to get lost if you didn’t know it well.

I had been evaluated on one of the lower floors of one tower and exited down the stairs around its exterior. There was no rail, since the Air-aspected majority of the Exalted Tepet had no fear of falling. It was a bit harsh on those of other aspects and mortals, I thought. Particularly if the weather was poor.

Even in the city of Sezakan, where almost every dweller had wings, took more care. After all, a surprise fall might kill you before you had enough speed for your wings to matter, and not all children had mastered them yet.

There was an easy solution to finding Serakan. I caught a servant and asked where she might be found. While the footman did not know, he directed me to the butler who had some notion and from there to a maid who was taking a tray to the pavilion where the matron plotted the next generation of binding alliances for scions of House Tepet.

She was not alone there and I saw Iyuki perched on one of the chairs that circled the pavilion. They were wrought iron, likely salvaged from some threshold city or tower that had weathered the centuries only to be looted for its furnishings. Chairs were hardly beyond the making of the Realm’s artisans, but who would use iron on them when it could be forged into armour and weapons for the legions… or nails, to be more utilitarian.

Serakan’s seat was subtly higher than the others, perhaps not originally part of the set. “It is good to see that you have thrived, child,” she greeted me and waved in a peremptory fashion for the maid to place the tray of tea and pastries on the table in the centre. “Do eat something, I know how children so easily hunger.”

I was not shy to accept the offer and took a pastry as Iyuki prepared a tea-cup for our elder, not needing to ask how Serakan took it.

A bite into the pastry revealed the contents to be pears and I looked for the maid, recalling another who had served pear pastries from an orchard I had helped her plant.

The woman was gone and I could not recall her features clearly. If she was the same then… well, who would question that she had been where she needed to be.

No one looks at servants, she had reminded me without saying it as such. And if the mark of the Hidden Sun graced her brow then she had never been so gauche as to show me.

But perhaps I read too much into the taste of pears.

“Do you like them?” asked Elana’s mother solicitously. “I find this year’s harvest excellent.”

“Very much so,” I admitted and teased another onto a plate for her. “Would you like cream?” Unlike Iyuki I did not know her preferences and better to ask than to assume.

“The merest touch.”

My schoolmate passed me the correct judge and I let a trickle grace the top of the pastry before placing the plate before Serakan.

She thanked me gravely but did not eat yet. “I understand that your lady mother has had little opportunity to discuss marriage plans with you.”

I nodded silently. The Exalted might easily not marry until their forties or fifties, but the matter was discussed well before and given the importance of continuing bloodlines that bore the potential for exaltation, women tended to marry younger. Negotiations usually began years in advance.

“Now that you have exalted, there is less urgency but more interest.” She sipped on her tea. “Have you given any thought to the matter.”

I hesitated – long enough that Serakan noticed. “I cannot say that I have considered either marriage or romance,” I confessed. “I assumed that the former would be a matter for my elders alone at this early stage and the latter…” I let a hint of distaste cross my face. “Boys of my approximate age are not appealing in that way.”

“You will probably find your opinion on the latter changing over the next few years.” The woman appeared to find the prospect amusing, damn her. “So long as you recall that they are two separate matters, you will likely make no major errors. I have warned Iyuki of how confusing them may damage her prospects but I doubt you are old enough to need examples.”

Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a flicker of irritation cross Iyuki’s face. Other than the occasional joke about Udano, I don’t recall her ever mentioning the matter of romance either on my part of hers. Perhaps she had felt it inappropriate to discuss seriously with a seven-year-old. Wait, I was eight now, wasn’t I? Yes… not that it made a huge difference.

Serakan leaned back and bit into her pastry. Both of us had to wait politely as she chewed. “Once you marry, it will be important to factor children into your plans. A marriage that is fruitless might as well not have happened, wasting the time and effort to prepare it for you. It might even be dissolved. But children need not impact on your life too heavily. Unlike mortals, carrying a child does not impair us greatly until the last few weeks. Though do not take the example of some women who continue to march and campaign right up to the birth. Your children matter far too much to be so careless.”

“Now.” She set down the pastry. “More seriously, even though you are correct that your parents will handle the matter at least until it is time to introduce you to potential husbands, there is much that you can do to raise your profile and attract better offers.”

I finished my own pastry. “Thank you for taking the time to instruct us, Lady Serakan.”

“Given my own daughter’s behaviour, encouraging you to make a better job of managing your prospects is the least I can do for the House.” Serakan considered us both seriously and then nodded. “Both of you have exalted young, which is good. That is the mark of a strong exaltation and any sensible family will want to marry their sons to someone more likely to have Exalted children. While it’s true that Alina’s strong aspect markings and exceptionally young, Iyuki, this applies to you as well.”

Iyuki nodded in acceptance. “Thank you for your kind words. I assume that schooling plans are also a consideration?”

“You are correct.” She looked severe. “I understand that you have raised the possibility of enrolling at the Heptagram.”

“Yes, lady Serakan. I hope to become a military sorcerer.”

“Sorcerers do have trouble finding spouses at times,” she conceded with what I considered a degree of reluctance. “However, it could also open doors to a marriage into House Ledaal or House Mnemon. The key point to remember is that knowledge of sorcery, whether a graduate of the Heptagram, does not always translate into the same… concerns. As long as you keep from wandering around with a coterie of bound spirits while you’re in polite society, it need not be too impairing. Presenting yourself as a soldier first and a sorcerer only for utilitarian purposes can also help. I wouldn’t go so far as to try to deter you from that school, but I imagine that your parents have already discussed the matter in depth with you.”

“That is true.” Iyuki gave no sign of how that had gone.

Serakan nodded seriously. “It’s also important to advance one’s essence control. I imagine that you’re already aware that sorcery requires the third plateau of essence mastery, which is as far as you can reasonably reach until you’re well established, but it’s also the mark of how strong your exaltation is. Dragonseeds are almost always the mark of a parent with strong essence mastery.”

She looked at me. “I’m sure Iyuki can coach you in how to increase your mastery. Breaking through into the second plateau before you complete primary school would be another feather in your cap when it comes to invitations to meet suitors.”

I exchanged looks with Iyuki and then gave Serakan a warm smile. “We have been practising meditation exercises to help advance our control, elder.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “Very good. Ah yes, you would wish to do so for martial arts, would you not? Well it’s useful in essentially any field. Far too many younger Dragon-Blooded are slack about it and settle for the second mortal plateau. It’s shameful, in my opinion.”

“It shows a lack of work ethic.”

The matron snapped her fingers. “Yes, well said. You are a clever girl, just as your parents said. Now, when the time comes to be introduced to suitors, be aware that there are almost certainly other prospects for them as well. I cannot stress too much: do not fight over them. Some young men may be flattered, but their parents will be looking at what sort of households they’re marrying their sons into and it suggests that it wouldn’t be a stable marriage…”

At the height of the summer. The elders declared a banquet for House Tepet, inviting everyone not only from the main household but those in the nearby households or even just guesting in the area.

Unlike my father’s galas, there was no plethora of different entertainments arranged but I was ordered to dress my best. That meant a hasty visit to Iyuki’s closet for something small enough that it could be altered to fit me.

We could have gone into Lord’s Crossing to a dressmaker but there was such a scramble, by other Tepet who felt suddenly dissatisfied with their finery, that connections might have mattered more than money and without Lady Yrina, I doubted that I could have secured an appointment. The Demarol manse was very far away, and while Juche might be the most fashionable city outside of the Blessed Isle, to the other Tepet I was very much their country cousin.

I’d have also had to get someone to authorise for payment out of my stipend, which was being managed by Tepet Jita while I was here as his guest. And arranging the banquet was apparently keeping him rather too busy to attend to such minor matters as a young Dragon-Blood not having a dress – sorry, a formal tunic – for the meal.

Look, if it’s a skirted garment that goes from shoulders to calves then I’m going to call it a dress. Most of the girls my age weren’t even pretending and had full on gowns, hoping it would make them look more mature.

It would have been idiotic for me to try that, but I was confident enough in my seamstressing to restitch two of Iyuki’s more worn tunics from when I was her age into something sturdy and decorative enough to pass.

“Are there no end to your talents?” she asked as she helped me by unpicking the stitching holding lace cuffs to one of the tunics. That was just a bit silly to my eyes, but reworked it could be a nice contrasting decoration against the blue on blue of my dress. Covering for the obvious fact that I had no bosom.

“You have heard me singing,” I pointed out as I finished the main seam up the side of the dress, keeping the stitches neat and even.

“Ah, yes.” She looked away demurely. “A memory I was trying to block. But cooking and sewing? If you ever set up your own households, your servants will be driven mad trying to live up to the standards you set.”

I made a face. “I wasn’t planning on being a professional hostess in the Imperial City, but it’s something to fall back upon, I suppose.”

Iyuki’s fingers slipped and she missed a loop. “Uh, Alina, do you know what a professional hostess is?”

I was saved from answering that with a lie (because I shouldn’t know even if I did), by a knock on the door. “Visitors for Miss Alina,” advised Iyuki’s maid.

The older girl set the lace aside. “Please show them in,” she instructed

The door opened and I had just enough time to push the dress I was working on – and more urgently, the needles and pins – before my arms were fully of a white-haired meteor that streaked into the room. “Aliiiina!” she shrieked happily.

“Opiha!” I exclaimed, returning the hug. “What in the world…?”

She humphed, not letting go of me. “What sort of way is that to say hello?”

“The sort that fits not knowing you’re within five hundred miles.” I kissed the top of her head. “I missed you so much.”

“So much?” she asked, releasing me to hold her hands apart.

“More than that,” I said, not looking at the hands behind me.

“This much?”

“More than that.”

“They may be at that for a while,” Icole said fondly from the doorway. He bowed to Iyuki. “My lady, I am Tepet Demarol Icole and this is my sister Opiha. Thank you for your kind hospitality.”

There was a… not quite a squeak, but more than a gasp… from Iyuki as she looked up at him. Her normally pale cheeks were quite pink. “Y-you’re welcome in my home, Icole.” She stood and dipped a shallow curtsey in acknowledgement of his bow, the most an Exalt could politely show towards a mortal.

At fourteen, Icole was only half a head taller than Iyuki and they both had similarly dark hair with pale eyes. I suspected they might make a handsome couple together, something to tease Iyuki about if Udano was raised in conversation.

Or perhaps not. Icole wasn’t Exalted – although there was still time – and that would be a difficult barrier to cross, even for an affair much less anything more formal.

Finally, Opiha’s arms reached full extension and I nodded seriously to her question. “That’s almost as much as I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” she agreed and turned to Iyuki, lifting the skirts of her tunic to curtsy. “Thank you for being a friend to Alina, Miss Iyuki. She has written to us of you.”

“You mean written to you,” Icole corrected. “I don’t recall any letters.”

“If I wrote to you directly then Opiha would have only half as much excuse to write to you. How are you, Icole?”

“I’m very well, thank you.” He looked more confident than I remembered from last year. Elana’s approval and graduating from his primary schooling had both done him good.

“But what brings you here? It’s weeks of travel. As wonderful as it is to see you, I’m sure that my parents wouldn’t allow it just so that I can see you again.”

“Silly, they must be here for the banquet,” Iyuki told me. “T-that is, I assume that you have been accepted?”

He nodded and she turned to me. “There is always a banquet to celebrate all the sons and daughters of our household who have been admitted to the House of Bells.”

“…so, is that the reason? I thought that it was something the elders had thrown together without warning.”

“That was inviting people from every household,” she clarified. “I suspect that it’s for the same reason that your father was advised to send you school here in Lord’s Crossing rather than nearer home in Juche.”

Icole nodded. “No one has confided in me, but great-grandfather was sending letters back and forth almost every day as we travelled.”

I gave Opiha’s hair another tousle before letting her go. “My congratulations on being accepted at the House of Bells, Icole.”

“It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you.” He bowed his head to me. “It was your suggestion to approach Tepet Elana. Otherwise I don’t think father would have sent in an application. Father and grandfather both sent their congratulations. None of our household have ever been admitted before.”

“Udano will be attending as well,” Iyuki told me. “Shall I invite him here and we can have our own little tea party before the banquet. You know he’ll agree if you’re baking.”

The two siblings turned to me. “You can bake, Alina?”

Oh wonderful. I hadn’t really expected anyone from Demarol household to be here, so I hadn’t considered that my explanation for knowing how to cook would be so easily investigated. “Yes, but I had to keep it quiet while Hunt was around. You know what a snob she is.”

“Is she part Sesus?” asked Iyuki.

“Her father’s a Cynis.”

She nodded at the reference to the most notoriously debauched of the Great Houses. Only their strong blood kept them socially above House Nellens, and that was the one house that couldn’t manage to maintain a strong elemental affinity.

“Alina!” exclaimed Opiha, pouting. “But hiding something from Hunt doesn’t mean you need to keep it secret from me! I thought we were close!”

“I was waiting until she’d gone to school,” I explained. “Until then, there was too much chance that she’d wonder about crumbs around your mouth or something. She’s not blind.”

The white-haired girl grasped my arm. “But you’ll show me now, right?”

“Of course.”

“And who is Udano?” she enquired. “Do you have a secret romance as well?”

“Oh, now there’s a tale,” Iyuki began. I suspected that whatever she told them would have only a tangential relationship to the truth.

“A classmate and a nice enough boy now that he doesn’t think I’m a witch stealing the exaltation from other children,” I cut the tale short.

Iyuki made a face at me behind Icole’s back and took his arm to guide him to a seat at the table. Well, now I had something else to keep an eye on, I guess.

Winter was unusually mild that year, but not especially dry. This had the unfortunate effect of keeping most of the student body crammed up inside except when classes forced us out. Even with the main building and five wings, that wasn’t a lot of room for over a hundred generally rambunctious children.

Getting wet wasn’t the end of the world, but wet, cold and muddy got tired in a hurry.

As a result, when I reached the dojo for class, I was looking forward to blowing off some steam. There was still no one my age who had exalted and Udano was falling behind despite his best efforts. I’d coached him as much as I could but if I walked him into enlightenment then I’d be doing him no favours.

If he wanted that when he was old enough to be making an informed decision, then I’d gladly help him, but in that case we could both prepare for the likely outrage from the Vergus household about me ‘leading him astray’.

Aware of my frustration, our sifu had taken up the role of my main sparring partner. I tried not to take too much advantage of it – he was there to teach the whole class after all – but today I planned to shamelessly indulge. Even the Exalted quarters were no real refuge from so many frustrated and restless children since two students in the senior year had exalted – one over the summer and the other shortly after the return to school.

The two of them were having what they no doubt thought was a discreet relationship, with all the stealth one would expect from teenagers dealing with the additional rush of Exaltation. Hopefully they’d work it out of their systems amicably, because the only thing worse than this would be if it ended badly and I spent the rest of the year tip-toeing around two feuding Exalted.

To my disappointment though, Sifu Voish wasn’t present. As we entered, Old Man Spider was standing quietly in the middle of the floor. That wasn’t a disrespectful nickname, I assure you. The long-limbed was from a tribe in the far south-east and when someone had dared to ask, he had confirmed that he’d been called exactly that all his life.

How a boy from the jungles had ended up a grey-haired old man teaching geography at a school near the centre of the Blessed Isle, I did not know. I suspected it was quite a story and that he might have visited many of the places he taught us about, but perhaps that was hoping for too much. He might simply have done a lot of reading. Travelogues about journeys through the Threshold were another good seller in the book market, as long as they were suitably derogatory.

“As my good friend Voish must travel to Lord’s Crossing for a family gathering, I will be covering for him this lesson,” the old man informed us. “I regret that those who are Exalted may not spar today as I fear I would be inadequate in the event of an accident with your great powers.”

It was a real effort not to sound sulky but I managed, somehow, as I accepted his decision. On the one hand, he was right. If there was an incident, I could easily kill someone. But I had never had an accident in all my time here. I was unlikely to have one simply because Voish wasn’t here.

“For the rest of you, we will have some sparring. Who wishes to go first?”

Udano stepped forwards, of course. “I volunteer, sifu.”

Old Man Spider waved one hand dismissively. “I do not claim such a title for my meagre skills. You may spar. Who wishes to face Udano?”

Lyta and a second girl from her end of the little group of students both stepped forward at the same time. With the ‘great cookie defection’, only Cathak Erika was still closely attached to the older girl. I wasn’t sure exactly why they were so tight, but the redhead was almost always found with Lyta.

After a momentary conference, Lyta stepped back and let her compatriot join Udano in front of Old Man Spider. The rest of us moved back against the walls to have a clear view.

“Very well,” he raised his hand. “You will begin on my mark; you will cease on my mark. Three solid strikes or pins to succeed. I will warn you once for a foul move – this is not a battlefield. A second foul will merit more than a warning. If you do not know if what you will attempt is a foul then do not do it. Questions?”

Both of them shook their heads and the old man lowered his hand. “Mark.”

Erika didn’t hesitate to strike first and Udano moved into it deliberately, ignoring her first few hits in the hope of getting hold of her. Given his height and weight disadvantage, she really didn’t want to let him manage that so she backed away, still delivering quick kicks and punches to his extremities.

That set the pace for the next few minutes, none of her hits hard enough that Old Man Spider was treating them as solid while Udano simply couldn’t get close to her. She was light on her feet, I noted. There was raw talent there, although she looked as if she’d be happier with something to extend her reach. A sword or a spear probably, I recalled her being reasonably adept when we worked on weapon drills.

Udano was getting frustrated though and tried to push Erika towards the edge of the room, his own kicks and punches growing wilder as he tried to extend further and deny her room to move.

That was leaving him more open though and I winced as I saw her jab sharply into a nerve bundle in the wrist.

My friend yelled in anger, almost drowning out the sound of Old Man Spider’s calm: “Point, Cathak Erika.”

And then Udano reared back and brought one foot down, hard.

White light roared and the entire dojo seemed to shake. No, it was shaking. There were screams from students on that side of the room and a stunned looking Erika was bounced literally off the ground as the wooden floor bucked under her. I was amazed it didn’t break!

“Mark!” Old Man Spider screamed; his calm gone. He dashed at Udano. “I said mark, stand down!”

Apparently unaware of the words, perhaps too caught up in the rush of essence, the newly Exalted Udano paid our teacher no heed, grabbing hold of the pale faced Erika and whirling her as if to throw her against the wall with what would be bone-breaking – perhaps lethal – force.

To his credit, the teacher didn’t hesitate to leap upon the young Exalt, latching one arm around his neck in a stranglehold. Veins seemed to pop in his long, bare arms.

With a roar, Udano somersaulted forwards and came down on his back, smashing the old man between himself and his floor. The move cost him his grip on Erika, who hit the floor with one arm and shoulder – just enough to break the fall before her head struck the hardwood floor.

I dashed towards them. “Clear the dojo!” I screamed to the rest of the class as I ran, spurring those still frozen in shock into following their brighter peers out of whatever door was nearest, even if it was out into the rain outside.

Udano got to his feet and saw me coming. His eyes were alight with joy, exultation… and a terrifying ignorance of what he’d already done. He came right at me.

This was probably going to hurt one of us.

And then, blood running down her face; Erika re-entered the fight with a banshee shriek; going right for Udano’s throat with a jab that only barely missed, tearing skin from just below the throat. The floor beneath the girl was smoking and crimson flames hammered into my friend as the girl ducked and weaved around his attempted retribution, smacking at his arms and legs, leaving his uniform smouldering.

She apparently didn’t expect him to simply ignore that and while she managed to block his punch diverting it over her shoulder, that left her exposed when he rammed his broad forehead against her nose,

It broke with an audible crack and I wasn’t sure if the blood on his face as a result was hers or if he’d torn his own face doing that.

Erika screamed and latched onto him, her anima roaring with flames so hot that I could practically see his skin begin to redden. In a moment, it would be burning.

All this in the handful of heartbeats as I crossed the dojo.

I had to shut this down. Now.

And ideally without killing them.

I didn’t even try to separate them. I’d picked up a fair bit of speed already and I grabbed them each by one arm as they wrestled and threw myself into a whirling throw.

It almost didn’t work, even with essence they both out massed me.

Almost.

Both of them hit one of the few door panels still closed after the exodus of the other students. It burst beneath them and they tumbled out into the rain.

I was right on their heels and while I didn’t use lethal force, I landed perfectly braced and hit Udano as hard as I could.

He was Earth-aspected, I figured he’d have the best chance of taking it.

The large boy hurtled away, flipping over in the air with a surprised look on his face. He came down in the koi pond on this side of the dojo, the water splashing up out of the water and taking a couple of fish with them.

Erika pulled herself into some semblance of a stance, but she was just beginning to realise what had happened and that left her off balance. I yanked her around and gave her a less forceful push.

She back-pedalled to the edge of the pond and teetered on the edge, arms pinwheeling for balance. I gave her good odds of managing despite the wet and slippery nature of the stones around the edge, Fire-aspected are agile if nothing else…

But that was when I scooped up one of the koi and flung it in her face.

She went over backwards to join Udano and I went to recover the other fish.

Look, I did not want to tell Voish that we’d wrecked his dojo, hurt his friend and also killed some of his precious koi. It would be adding insult to injury.

“Have the two of you calmed down?” I asked them, dropping the fish into the pond.

Udano was still lying on his back, face barely out of the water. Erika was on her hands and knees, dripping water and blood into the pond. Both made submissive noises.

“Great. Congratulations, by the way. You’re both Exalted. I’m sure your families will be ecstatic.”

When Erika looked up, a smile was creeping across her face. It should have looked happy but with the blood…

“Er, Erika, you want me to set that nose? And you should probably stop bleeding now.”

She gave me a surprised look and then sat up on her knees before rising fluidly to her feet. “Uh, yes to the nose and… how do I do that?”

“It’s really easy.” I reached up to her face. “You feel your essence, right?”

“Ye-aaaah!” she yelped as I used my thumb and forefinger to line her nose up again. She was rather pretty, so it would have been a shame to leave her with a crooked nose.

“Okay, just focus on one mote. Feel its warmth. That warmth is you as you should be. As the perfect pattern of essence that is Cathak Erika. Do you have it?”

She hesitated, reaching up to feel her nose. From the way her eyes tightened, that was a mistake. “Yeessss?”

“Okay, now do you feel the cold parts? The parts of your body that are chilled. Not just by the water,” I added.

“I think so.”

“Now imagine that heat is warming those places, setting them right. Until every part of you is warmed by the fires of your essence.”

Erika nodded slowly and I saw the scratch on her brow close, blood ceasing to spill from it. The rain washed away the rest of it. “I think I did it. But my nose still feels strange.”

I nodded and helped her out of the pond, then did the same for Udano. “It stops the bleeding, that’s all. The bone’s still going to need time to set.”

Udano looked around. “I don’t feel… warm.”

“You’re Earth aspected.” I looked at his face. No, that had been Erika’s blood. “For us it’s more like feeling our solidity and stability, then spreading that to the places that lack it. Want to get out of the rain?”

“Yeah, sounds good,” he rumbled and then looked at the wrecked door panel. “Oh Mela, what did I do to Old Man Spider!” He ran to the dojo and there was a screech from someone, followed by pounding feet as whoever it was apparently made the assumption that Udano was still rampaging.

Old Man Spider was flat on the floor, eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. For a moment I had the dreadful feeling he was dead, but then I realised he was just breathing shallowly.

“Ow,” the teacher gasped when he tried to raise his head.

“Please don’t move,” I asked, going past Udano to kneel at his side. “I’m not sure what’s broken but your ribs are probably in a state.”

“Voish is never going to let me live this down,” he mumbled. “I see Udano is alright, how about his opponent?”

“I’m alright sir,” Erika managed, looking down at him white-faced.

“I’ve been trampled by worse,” he managed to say with a crooked smile. “But Alina is right that I should not move without proper care and attention. Udano, I require your forfeit for failing to stop on instruction.”

“I-I’m sorry, sensei.”

“Yes, I would hope so.” Old Man Spider gave him a mild smile. “My congratulations to you both on your exaltation. Class dismissed.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he closed them.

“Is he…?”

I checked his pulse and found it weak, but steady. “Just unconscious. Would one of you go to the nearest classroom, please? I think we need the school physician. And maybe someone to cut him out of the floor.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Alina needs to be more careful with her lies.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Ascending Earth



For the second summer in a row, I was to spend the school holidays in Lord’s Crossing. Bear in mind that I’d just turned nine and this meant that I’d have spent more than a quarter of this life away from the home I’d grown up in. I was beginning to suspect that however auspicious my Exaltation might have seemed, that Tepet Demarol didn’t want me around his household any more.

Thus, I was quite surprised to see him seated with the elders as they reviewed my class performance, but I curtsied towards him and sat obediently facing them all.

My lawful-father said little as Tepet Jita and Tepet Vergus took the lead. They were rather blatantly playing good magistrate-bad magistrate as they went from one subject to the next. For example, Jita seemed inclined to brush off the reports from my music class with “if she doesn’t have talent, the girl is really doing all she can”, while Vergus insisted that I sing the entirety of ‘Little Soldier Boy’ for them.

I don’t think that it made her very popular with her siblings and even Demarol was giving her a sour look as I sat again, rather aware that torturing them with that might not have made me memorable in a good way. “Well, you can manage volume, at least,” the head of my own household noted. “I gather that there was an incident with two other Exalted students over the winter?”

Vergus spoke rather than letting me do so. “Yes, one of my brood exalted during a spar with one of the Cathak. Unfortunately, the supervising teacher was a mortal and suffered considerable injury. The school hasn’t asked for compensation.”

Jita gave his sister a sidelong look. “Another earth-aspect, wasn’t it? I’d have expected him to be more… level-headed.”

“I still remember the first rush of Exaltation, even if you don’t,” she retorted and looked back to me. “You showed restraint in handling the situation, Alina.” The admission seemed to pain her.

“Has it impacted on your relations with the two of them?” Demarol enquired thoughtfully. “They would have been moved to room in your dorm right afterwards, unless the school operates very differently from those I’m familiar with.”

I gave Vergus a polite smile. “Tepet Vergus Udano is a good friend and we remain so. Indeed, his exaltation has removed the fear that I would be leaving him behind over time. I think highly of him.”

“And the Cathak?” she asked sharply. “Our relations with that house have suffered of late, and Cathak Cainan will doubtless be meeting with the newest Exalt of his House this summer.”

“Third newest.” Demarol smiled thinly as he corrected the elder. “His house has been blessed with two further exaltations in the spring - but your main point is apt. Daughter, what do you expect him to hear of you?”

“Unless she has been deceiving me for months, I may count Cathak Erika as a friend,” I assured him. “She was previously very much in the circle of a Sesus who has yet to exalt, but since Erika’s exaltation, that bond has been greatly weakened by the other girl’s resentment. I can’t predict what may happen if Sesus Lyta exalts, but I made Erika welcome in my dorm and she has reciprocated my aid warmly.”

My father turned a satisfied look upon the elders. “I forget which general it was who remarked that the most profound victory is to turn one’s enemy into an ally… oh wait, it was Tepet himself.”

“I believe that my point is proven,” Jita observed calmly. “Does anyone else believe that Alina is unsuited to the role that I have nominated her for?”

The other Tepet elders exchanged looks, presumably able to judge each other’s feelings simply by their expressions. They had known each other for centuries, I suppose. Then they turned back to their brother and Vergus nodded. “We accept your choice in this matter.”

Uh, what role? I looked at Jita and my father. “May I ask what role you have in mind?” It can’t possibly be a matter of public singing can it? I thought. Or do they want a mascot for one of the legions, a little girl to hold flowers to inspire them…? I doubt they think like that. Are legion mascots even a thing?

Jita smiled rather slyly. “I have become a father again in my dotage, it seems. And since you have done well in instructing the young Cathak girl, I hope that you can provide similar guidance to my own new daughter.”

I blinked. I knew that Dragon-Blooded retained their vigour for a long time, but was that really something he felt the need to brag about? And what could I teach a baby? I wasn’t really skilled in nappy changing, and… ah, it was more likely he was talking about adopting a girl who’d exalted? “I presume that we are not discussing a new-born, elder, as I can claim no special expertise in changing nappies.”

The creased face developed several new folds as the smile deepened. “Quick,” he noted. “Yes, I am adopting a child born to a family here in Lord’s Crossing. She exalted quite recently and will need guidance in the ways of dynasts. Do you feel up to the role?”

I was dubious, to be honest. But… “I would be honoured to help a new member of our house find her feet, elder. Will she have tutors for any more academic subjects that I wouldn’t necessarily have the grounding for?”

The old man shrugged. “Either that or I shall send her to school with you. It depends what she is ready for. If she cannot attend a school then her social circle will be rather small compared to her peers and that can be unfortunate.”

I dropped into a curtsy. “I will be glad to do what I can for her.”

“How very compliant you are,” he noted. As if I’d had a choice. “You have raised a dutiful daughter, Demarol. I am proud of you.”

“As I am, of her.” He bowed to his ancestor before returning his attention to me. “I am sure you will rise to the occasion, Alina. As you have before.”

“Thank you, father.”

Jita pushed back his chair. “Unless anyone has further questions for Alina, I will introduce her to her new charge.”

There were no objections voiced so he led me out of the tower and through the courtyards around the inner manse to another stair that led upwards through another tower.

“The only access between the towers internally is through the hearthroom,” he explained when I glanced upwards at what seemed to be bridges connecting the towers well above us. “And for various reasons we try not to bring younger members of the family up there. Probably an unnecessary precaution these days, but arguing over changing that rule would take up time better used.”

That made some degree of sense. I didn’t know who held the hearthstone, but if it were ever damaged then it would reform in the hearthroom and anyone with access might pick it up. Given that the holder of the hearthstone could draw on the essence flows of the manse, it was a considerable advantage to have. Holding even one could be a decisive advantage both in the reserves of essence and whatever additional benefits the hearthstone was designed to confer.

As before, this tower was partly circled by a staircase until well above ground level where Jita opened a door and led me inside. Yet more stairs led higher up on the inside until he reached a door no different to me than several others I had passed. He knocked once and then pushed it open.

Inside was a simple chamber, little more than space for a desk and chair, with a small bookcase in the corner. A second door led into spartan living quarters. It wasn’t quite a cell… the door wasn’t locked at any rate.

“Exalted father.” The girl sat at the desk pushed her chair back frantically and dropped to both knees before Jita.

He held up his hand. “I believe we have had this conversation before Emari. The respect is welcome but you forget that you are also Exalted now.”

I surveyed her as she stood. Slender… perhaps even scrawny, with dark hair only as long as the nape of her neck at the back. She wore a simple blue tunic… and was taller than me quite a bit. I guessed she was perhaps Iyuki’s age. Why would this be asked of me and not of her?

“Greetings, Tepet Emari.” I bowed my head politely, the gesture of equal to equal. “I am Tepet Demarol Alina.”

She started to grovel again and then caught herself. Reaching out, I took her hands and ‘helped her up’. She seemed even taller against me now that I was standing right next to her.

“I’m pleased to greet you, ex… Alina,” she managed with only a slight stumble.

“Elder Jita asked me to help you settle in,” I confided and lowered my voice enough that the old man could pretend that he didn’t hear me. “I’m guessing you haven’t met many people here yet who are close to your own age.”

Emari gestured towards the desk helplessly. “My tutors are working hard but there is a great deal I must learn.”

Jita cleared his throat. “Not all the lessons you will need can be found inside the books, daughter. Many are, and I am pleased with your progress so far, but not all. I will leave the two of you to get acquainted. Feel free to show Emari around, Alina, if you think it best.”

I bowed to him as he left and made a point of relaxing once he had closed the door behind him. “I’m guessing you’re used to meeting Exalted, just not as one of them?”

The older girl flushed. “My family… my old family… are jewellers. We have many Exalted customers.”

I wasn’t too surprised. Repeated contacts with Dragon-Blooded then, likely her mother or one of her grandmothers had been seduced – or done the seducing, hoping for more or less this result. “My own birth-mother was Tepet Demarol’s secretary.”

That gave her pause. “You were also adopted?”

“I don’t have exact numbers, but most years there are a dozen or so exaltations on the Blessed Isle outside the dynastic and patrician houses,” I told her matter-of-factly. “The Thousand Scales try to make sure that no one house adopts more than the others, so it’s a rare year that someone isn’t adopted into House Tepet. If you were too old for adoption, you’d be given the choice between the Legions and the Immaculate Order, but this way you have more options.”

Emari looked around, seeming embarrassed. “I should offer you a chair. And refreshments.”

I saw that one of the books on her desk was an etiquette manual. Clearly, she’d read it – good on two fronts because that was useful to know and it strongly suggested she was decently literate. If she couldn’t pass the exams to graduate from school in a few years she’d be shuffled aside and likely be little more than someone’s wife even if she caught up later. Dynastic advancement was a rat-race, with little mercy for those who couldn’t keep up.

Fortunately, air-aspects are almost always quick studies. She’d need that.

I gave her a grin. “You’re not really set up to entertain, are you? Do you have a maid?”

“Uh, there are maids, but I don’t… have one?” She indicated a bell pull. “I’m supposed to ring that if I need something…”

“Go ahead then. You could probably do with a maid, someone to advise you – not instruct, just advise – about little things like this.” I stretched a little. “I don’t mind sitting, but it’s awkward to talk when one of us is and the other isn’t. Perhaps we could go for a walk, get you some fresh air.”

“I should study,” Emari said guiltily as she tugged on the bell pull. “Was it this overwhelming for you?”

“My case was a little unusual. Lord Demarol thought there was a high chance of my exalting, so he adopted me shortly after my birth. In some ways that’s probably easier… but I never met my mother again.”

She nodded sympathetically. “At least mine are only in Lord’s Crossing.”

I raised my hand. “Don’t.”

The girl blinked. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t visit them. One of the standard terms of adoption is that they’re not to contact you. And it’ll be very awkward for them: they’re used to being your parents and guiding you, but now that you’re one of the Exalted it’s assumed that you are the more enlightened.” I softened my tone. “Don’t forget them – treasure those memories because they’re something that you won’t have to share – but you have a new life now. I’m guessing that Emari wasn’t your name before?”

It was normal for adoptees to be given entirely new names. For that matter, I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t had another name before my mother asked Demarol to let me take her name at the adoption. Had I already been called Alina or was there some other name I’d never recognised as my own, given how young I was at the time?

Emari shook her head, wide-eyed.

“Bury that girl, whatever her name was. You are Tepet Emari now and there is no going back.” I gave her a sympathetic look as she gathered herself from that shock. “I’m sorry, I know it’s not easy. I haven’t seen the household I grew up in since I started school and even that is hard. But the best thing that you can do for them now is to make them proud of you. They’ll know you, and if anyone talks in awe of you in the future, they’ll know that their little girl grew up into that wonderful person.”

There was a knock on the door and I swung it open, revealing one of the footmen.

“Ah, excellent. Emari will need a second chair in here for guests,” I instructed, not letting him make a start. “I believe there’s room, but if not then arrange larger quarters for her. And who has been appointed as her maid?”

The Tepet Emari who faced the elders two months later looked the same in many ways, but the details were different. It was like some forms of crafting – bringing out what was already there rather than adding embellishments.

There was elegance to the way she wore the long, but still comparatively simple tunic. Her lean frame wouldn’t have favoured flourishes and she remained practical in how she prepared her hair and eschewed ornamentation. Perhaps she’d change her mind later or perhaps it would be her preferred style.

“The most recent of the Great Houses is that of Lady V’Neef, declared in 708,” she concluded her quizzing on the Great Houses. “Her Scarlet Majesty recently awarded her control over several major trading fleets, previously under the control of House Peleps. Lady V’Neef married a scion of House Cynis, to maintain the elemental aspect of her house. She has six Exalted children, all of them sharing her aspect, and I understand that she has chosen only to adopt wood-aspected children, with most of them marrying out into the other Great Houses.”

Jita nodded approvingly. “And if hypothetically, we were to receive an offer to marry you to one of V’Neef’s children?”

Emari stiffened slightly and then relaxed. “I would be… surprised, elder. My understanding would be that she would wish her male children to provide her with children within House V’Neef by marrying among her adoptees, whereas my children will be Tepet. Besides which, she has shown a preference for wood-aspect and those with several generations of confirmed Exalted heritage.”

I gave her a slight smile of approval for that answer.

“I’m pleased you can not only recite facts but also have some understanding of them,” noted Vergus sourly. This was, I suspected, her default mood. “I understand Alina took charge of your household.”

“I can hardly claim to be a household in my own right, elder.” Emari looked abashed at the idea. “I moved into a lodging shared with her so that she could supervise my… introduction to House Tepet’s customs.”

Jita gave his sister a sidelong look at Emari dodging that hidden trap.

Vergus ignored him and leaned forwards. “I don’t recall Alina being precisely an exemplar of the social graces. Not to mention that she’s a girl only three-quarters your own age. Do you not feel ashamed to learn from a child you are senior to?”

Faced with that jab, Emari faltered. “I… I am a child in comparison to almost all in House Tepet,” she managed after a moment. “Who else should I learn from, until I am worthy to learn from my elders?”

Vergus arched an eyebrow and no one commented until finally she relaxed just a little. “If you are only worth children and mortal teachers, then you are a poor Tepet,” she grumbled. “But what is done is done.”

“Take your seat,” Jita told his adopted daughter, not unkindly and then turned to me. “Alina?”

“Exalted elder.” I rose to my feet and bowed to the table of elders.

“We must decide today whether Emari will be enrolled in formal schooling or whether it would be better to keep her here for intensive tutoring until she is fifteen. What is your opinion?”

First and foremost, my opinion was that asking me this in front of Emari was a bit blunt. Perhaps I was being tested.

“I have no doubt that she would learn more from intensive tutoring, however the impression I have from the lessons I’ve sat in is that Emari is catching up quite quickly in core subjects. At most, the extra attention would bring her closer to the breadth of a complete education,” I began.

Mokairo cleared his throat. He rarely spoke, sometimes so ethereal that it was hard to tell he was there. “And at a school?”

“Given her studies so far, I believe she’d manage the exams in two years and manage them well if she is allowed three years to study, which should be feasible. She would also meet many more of the mortal and Exalted that she’ll encounter after school. I do not believe I need to elaborate on the importance of having connections across society and the Realm’s government.”

“You lean towards the school then?”

I gave Emari a glance and then sighed. “There is the possibility that the stress may be damaging to her confidence. While she would have the buffer of being Exalted, struggling in some classes where most students are years ahead of her could be challenging. Ultimately, I have confidence in her Exaltation.”

I’d spent several evenings coaching the older girl on the most basic charms in some key areas. I wasn’t well versed in all the fields usually associated with her aspect – for example, I’d never been more than minimally competent with their traditional weapon, the chakram – but I did know their techniques for using essence to bolster the retention and understanding of history and natural laws. In my past life I’d have gone so far as to claim that the charms came as naturally to me as one of those Exalted in that elemental aspect. I could no longer claim that honestly, but the basic knowledge was still there.

Of course, the reason we did that in the evenings was so that she could recover the motes spent that way as she slept. But her tutors had been most pleased with how well she’d done at her reading of their assigned texts after that.

“Hmm.” Jita looked at Mokairo, who said nothing. Perhaps he had exceeded his word stipend for the day. Or the month. “Do you have an opinion, daughter?”

There was a silence and then Emari, red-faced, realised that she was the daughter in question. “I’ve never even seen a school, f-father. Much less whichever you have in mind. I have nothing useful to say.”

“But you know yourself, yes?” snapped Vergus. “What do you want?”

The girl bit her lip briefly and then straightened. “I must leave the manse and face the rest of the Realm someday. Perhaps it would be better sooner rather than later.”

“The finest steel from the hottest fire,” murmured Jita approvingly.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Cainan,” Vergus admonished him. “The finest steel comes from precise and calculated forging… and a carefully metered inclusion of jade.”

Then she shook her head. “Though I see you have made up your mind and I have little enough time for other matters without arguing this further. She is your child, Jita. Have your way.”

“My sincere thanks,” he told her formally and then gestured for us both to take our seats. “I do not think it best to send you into an entirely unfamiliar school, daughter.” He may have emphasised that word a little as a reminder.

“So, Root and Reed School?” I asked.

He nodded. “That, Emari, is the school Alina attends. Also, that of Tepet Iyuki, who I am sure Alina has introduced to you.”

That had been quite an experience. Iyuki had reduced Emari to embarrassed stammering without even trying. The sophisticated and glamorous dynast was simply too much for the adopted jeweller’s daughter. It had taken quite some time to get her past that, illustrating why I’d been chosen over my friend.

“It will also allow Alina to continue to guide you. Discreetly, I hope. It would not do for anyone to conclude that my daughter needs her hand held by another. The purpose of this is not to make you dependent upon any one of the House.”

Emari nodded in understanding. “I will stand on my own feet as much as I can,” she promised.

“See that you do.” He paused and then grunted unhappily. “Understand that you will face provocations there. Students, many of them the unexalted, will resent that you were Chosen when they or their relatives have not been. You cannot bend to such sentiment, but nor may you lash out. We have withdrawn students before and if I must take you out of Root and Reed then I will send you to the Tamed Storm instead.”

There seemed little to be said to that and so Emari elected not to respond with more than a nod of understanding.

We were dismissed after several further admonishments and descended the stairs together, Emari casually walking far closer to the edge than I would have.

“Alina,” she asked. “What is the Tamed Storm?”

“It’s a school for discipline cases,” I answered, recalling what Elana had told me. “If a student doesn’t behave well and refuses correction in an ordinary school, their parents would usually rather transfer them to a ‘specialised school’ than have them officially expelled. And by specialised, I mean specialised in beating the child into complying… or until they die.”

“I really don’t want to wind up there,” Emari exclaimed, wide-eyed.

“It’s been the making of some people,” I mused. “If you can survive that or one of the other schools like it, you can survive practically anything. I don’t think I’d enjoy it though.”

Iyuki was waiting for us outside. “So, did they decide on a school?”

I nodded as my student faltered briefly and then fell in slightly behind me (she couldn’t hide behind me as such, but she did shrink in a little). “Emari will be joining us.”

“How wonderful!” Iyuki favoured us with a dazzling smile. “You know what that means though, she needs uniforms!”

“I could probably -”

“Shopping trip!” she declared before I could suggest that I just sew them myself. Oh well, it would probably be quicker and that would give me more time for martial arts practise. Tutoring Emari was cutting into my opportunities for that.

“Alina?” Emari entered the Exalted dorm with an air of confusion, something that wasn’t all that unusual this year. She was getting much better but there were still any number of small things that caught her off guard.

Many of them had caught me off guard too, so I could understand. The ‘I am bleeding down there’ one had been a joke, fortunately. Her birth mother had prepared her for that whereas I was… theoretically familiar but in practical terms in no sense emotionally prepared.

I would have to deal with it sooner or later, but until then I was going to repress the very notion.

“Did you put my name down for the musical festival?” the slender air-aspect continued, more bemused than accusingly.

“What?” I sat up. “No, I wouldn’t do that. You’re not supposed to sign up other people and I told you that you had dispensation not to do anything this year if you wanted.”

I’d only gone down to the festival board sign-ups once, to make sure I was down for the martial arts tournament section. I wouldn’t have put it past Lyta to sneak my name down for the music festival for the amusement value of my having to perform and to get me out of the tournament. Not that she’d stand a chance against the other Exalted, but she could probably make it up as high as any of the other mortal students, even including those a few years older than her.

The girl had some actual talent buried under that smug-snake exterior. If she wasn’t a shameless backstabbing snob and social climber, we might even have been friends. So… basically, if almost everything about her was different.

“Are you sure it’s you?”

“I do know my own name, Alina.”

“Sorry, I thought it might be nerves.”

She shook her head. “Apparently I’m down to sing the Ballad of Culan’s Hound. Whatever that is?”

“…what?” I climbed off the couch. “I swear, if this is Lyta then I’m going to… ugh, I’ll think of something. Let’s take a look.”

We went down the stairs and entered the main building. The sign-up board was taking up a section of one wall. There was a chalkboard that usually had announcements on it, but it was covered over by several pinned sections of poor-quality paper (even in the dynasty there was no need to use the good stuff for everything) divided up into boxes for each event and sub-boxes for specific roles.

There were only a limited number of places for some events or roles, so we had to ink our names in - that ensured that there weren’t any cases of people removing other’s names to make room for them in popular events. At least unless someone figured out ink remover.

The musical part of the festival wasn’t filled out for the most part. That was normal, Root and Reed School did specifically aim for a slightly martial crowd so as in both previous years the tournament was the first to fill up. But in the soloist’s section, Emari’s name had been written with the name of her proposed piece. Which was the Ballad of Culan’s Hound.

“Well.” I looked at it. “It could be your handwriting. I’m not saying that it is, but it could be.”

Emari shook her head. “So, someone’s done a competent job of faking it. That’s not a good thing.”

“Something my mother told me. My adoptive mother,” I clarified. “The teachers won’t care about accusations of someone setting you up. If whoever’s behind this did it well enough to get away with it, in their view, they deserve to get away with it. They’re preparing us for real life, after all. If we can’t handle something like this, better to find out now.”

“But I’ve never even heard of that ballad.”

“Nor have I.” I folded my arms. “But we either prove this is false – well enough that they are willing to take you off the list when the music festival is this sparsely populated - or we’ll have to go with it as is.”

Emari looked at the names around hers, or rather the relative paucity. “Is that really important to the school?”

“We’re supposed to be cultured individuals. Beating each other up may be more fun for us, but perhaps not so much for any family members who attend.”

Emari made a face. “So, you don’t think I can get out of this?”

I looked around. “I don’t see any obvious leads to follow up on. How nervous do you feel about singing?” I hadn’t really touched on music in my advice to her, largely because there wasn’t much that I could offer her in that regard.

“I… can sing?”

“That’s a start.” I sighed. “Alright, let’s see if we can find a copy of this ballad and see what you’ve been set up with.”

The school library had a copy and the song didn’t seem too bad in terms of length or complexity. Emari ran her finger down the musical notation though and frowned. “Am I reading this correctly?”

“I don’t know, what are you reading? I’ve no ear for music.”

“I think this is scored for a male voice.”

I looked at where she was indicating. “I… see. Well, perhaps we can change that? I think we need someone with more musical knowledge than I have.”

Emari looked relieved. “Who do you have in mind?”

Ideally, Nalan. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really in reach right now and I wasn’t all that close with the more musically inclined students. “I’m not sure, but I’m sure Iyuki will know someone who can help.”

“Uh, could we…” She looked uneasy. “Is it alright to bother her?”

“I haven’t been counting favours owed, but I think she’s still going to be feeling grateful after she broke through into the third plateau,” I assured her.

Iyuki was in the Water Wing, working on a pan set on the stone. “Oh, I was hoping for some taste-testers,” she greeted us. “Would you let me know what you think of this?”

I eyed the pan and nodded. “By all means.”

“I… of course, if it would help,” added Emari.

The older exalt took a spoon and offered it to Emari first. “Tell me honestly, is this too spicy?”

She might have been kinder to mention ‘spicy’ before Emari had sipped some of the sauce. I thought my charge’s eyes were going to bulge out of her face, which was turning a brilliant crimson. “Just a… argh, water?”

I darted into the pantry and retrieved some milk instead, which served admirably.

As Emari gratefully washed the spicy sauce out of her mouth I examined the pot and took a spoonful to examine more carefully. “Oh, Iyuki. You’ve used the seeds.”

“It didn’t seem that hot when I tested earlier,” she protested and took a very careful sip. “Oh my! No, this is far hotter than I thought!” She grabbed the milk and poured some for herself.

“Soaking the beans for the flavour is fine in theory,” I told her. “But once they burst and let the seeds out, you got a much higher concentration of the spice. It’s not really tolerable in that strength unless you’ve grown up with it. I’d recommend opening the beans up and removing the seeds.” I sniffed. “And possibly feeding the seeds to your enemies, if you can find a way. Good grief.”

Iyuki moved the pan off the stove and set it down somewhere it could cool. “Bother, I was hoping I was getting better at this.”

“There are many many ingredients in Creation. It always takes some experimentation to get used to everything new.” I leant against one of the cabinets. Just smelling the pot had given me an idea what had happened, but there was no point rubbing that in. “So, we - that is Emari and I - have a little problem...”

We explained as Iyuki cleaned up from her abortive cooking experiment. It was her last year before graduating, so I suspected that she was using the cooking to relax and let her mind rest from intensive efforts to memorise essentially everything in the sorcery section of the library. The Heptagram didn’t have an official entrance exam but unofficially there was reading you were expected to have done before you arrived and knowing the applicable vocabulary was important.

“I see,” she admitted. “Someone must have done some digging. It’s an obscure ballad, but I happen to know that it was sung in my first year and Sifu Voish was very taken by it. I’m not saying that it would be one of my year behind this, but they may have given advice to someone.”

That made sense to me – students who had entered with me were now moving across to the same dorm as the older students, with it mostly being the two younger years facing us across the entrance way. If Lyta – to name a non-random example – was responsible then she might have simply asked around.

“So, getting it wrong may upset Voish,” I expanded in case that wasn’t clear to Emari. “Do you know anyone who might be able to adjust the music for Emari to sing it? If not then we might as well go back and see if we can find any witnesses who saw her name added. I doubt we’ll be lucky.”

Iyuki paused as she checked that the stove was cooling. “I think Onoka is your best bet.”

I had to think a moment to place the name. “Sort of purple-ish streaks in her hair? Itusi Onoka?”

“That’s her. She’s tried her hand at composition and reworked a song to fit her voice last year. Not male to female, but she’s not a soprano and a lot of the high notes weren’t quite in her… and this means nothing to you, does it?”

“I think I follow,” Emari advised, sounding surprised. “We covered this in class earlier in the year. So, she might be able to adjust the music… I’ll need that. I can at least try singing it but the music is another matter.”

“That, at least, is covered. If a soloist needs it, then one of the staff will volunteer rather than risk having a solo performer undermined by a classmate whose heart isn’t in it.”

“So where might we find Onoka?” I asked.

“You need to get better at knowing this for yourself,” warned Iyuki. “I won’t be here to help you next year. Try the stables. She likes to practice in private and I think she mentioned something about the acoustics of the loft up above them.”

I don’t have any proof of who was behind the name substitution, but I’m morally certain that the look on Lyta’s face when Emari (accompanied by an enthusiastic Onoka) was the star performer of the musical part of the festival was the expression of someone who’s had a plan they were sure of blow up on them.

If so, revenge was had. Not only had Emari not embarrassed herself, but she had also made a new friend, found a talent she could explore and now had an activity I could politely bow out of to get extra practise in. I didn’t resent helping Emari but there was definitely a trade-off.

And while I was at it, I’d better start keeping tabs on the rest of the student body better. Iyuki did have a point…

I had half expected to spend yet another summer at Lord’s Crossing but instead I was instructed to expect to be collected directly from the school. No other details were provided so I packed my cases – I was up to two – and said goodbye to Emari, Udano and Iyuki as they departed for Lord’s Crossing. He’d be staying there overnight before moving on to the Vergus manse while the two girls were going to be staying in the family manse together until Iyuki left for the north coast and the Heptagram.

“Aren’t you going with them?” asked Erika as she waited with her own cases for the crowd of coaches waiting for students to sort themselves out to the point that one of the Cathak coaches would be accessible for her.

“Apparently not. Do you have plans for the summer?”

She nodded. “There’s a family estate on the Caracal River. I had to visit Lord Cainan last summer but I should have a much more relaxed summer this year. Cathak from all over the southern Realm are gathering for a reunion.”

“That sounds busy to me.”

“It’ll mean I get to meet any number of relatives I haven’t seen in years.” She paused and cupped one fist thoughtfully. “Including cousin Ujiri, who was quite the pain in my neck and somehow has not Exalted yet. I wonder if he’ll try putting spiders down my collar again this year.”

“Well, try not to break him,” I warned. “You’re more than strong enough to cause him serious injury.”

“I know how to control myself,” she promised confidently. “There won’t be another case like Old Man Spider, and that was Udano rather than me.”

“Fair,” I conceded. I saw a Cathak coach pull forwards, the coachman almost forcing a pair of horses from House Nellens into a flowerbed, rather to the fury of the woman on that coach. “Here, this is for you.”

I’d brought box lunches for the three Tepet, so it would be mean not to provide one for Erika. She’d not quite become one of our little cabal but she was decent company when she did spend time with us in the common room.

The fire-aspected girl brightened. “Are you sure? Won’t you need it for your own journey.”

“I don’t know how or where I’ll be travelling,” I admitted. “That makes preparing provisions a little difficult.”

With Erika climbing up into her coach, I backed away and almost collided with a familiar face heading for the next coach. It wasn’t the Nellens, as that coachman had had to dismount so she could straighten out the horses, much to the embarrassment of the boy waiting for her. No, it was a familiar head of brunette hair that looked down on me as I skipped sideways at the last minute.

“Getting in my way again?” Lyta asked lightly. “But I thought all the Tepet coaches had left. Were you forgotten about?”

“Some other arrangement has been made,” I told her lightly. “Probably not special treatment, but I may be going back to Juche. Have you ever been there?”

Her eyes flashed. “Once, yes. We took the scenic route to the Imperial City once. Have you ever been there?”

“I assume you mean the Imperial City?” I thought of my last sight of it. A wreck of a city, overrun by some dead leviathan that one of the Deathlords had found on the floor of the ocean and ridden up to the very doors of the Imperial Manse.

It had been killed by the defenders, as much as such a thing could be, but the city paid the price and the rest had been fortified further. What had happened after that… well, I hadn’t been there to see what ultimately became of the Imperial Manse. I probably wouldn’t have survived that.

“No,” I said softly. “I have not yet seen the Imperial City. But as you speak so proudly of it, I shall look forward to doing so when I get the chance.”

“If you ever do. More likely you’ll be sent off to some garrison post in the Threshold to rot.” Her voice held no obvious vitriol despite the words – anyone not close enough to hear would have thought we were having a civil conversation.

“There are worse fates. We’ll see.”

With a huff at her failure to get a rise from me, Lyta boarded her coach and I headed back away from the entrance. There was no use getting in the way, I thought the coaches were managing that fairly well without my contribution.

I would have appreciated having a slightly better idea of what to expect in travel arrangements.

And then, as I turned to enter the school again, there was a flicker of movement that I only caught out of the corner of my eye – something up in the sky.

Turning I held one hand up to shade my eyes. A cloud, far too low and moving far too fast. “That can’t be a coincidence,” I said to myself and headed inside for my cases.

When I returned a moment later, the cloud was only a few inches off the ground with Tepet Yrina standing on it, pretending that she wasn’t the focus of attention. Mako was next to her and unlike my lawful-mother, he was eyeing the awestruck students back and smirking.

“Ah, Alina.” Yrina saw me almost immediately. “I was expecting you to be waiting.”

I set my cases down and curtseyed.

“It’s good to see you again mother.” I offered no excuse for whatever delay she might feel she had suffered.

Mako reached down and helped me to climb up onto the cloud. It felt a little more crowded than I remembered it, perhaps because I was hesitant to crowd Yrina. She placed one arm possessively around my shoulders though and pulled me closer as the cloud ascended, moving eastwards across the Blessed Isle.

“You’ve grown quite a bit,” she observed once we were off the ground. “Is there any room left inside those clothes?”

I’d elected to get a new set of uniforms when we were getting them for Emari, which had proven a wise decision as my last set from the shop in Juche had been outgrown in the spring. “I could let them out a little further but there isn’t much margin for error.”

“Not quite so bad as I thought then.” She looked me over. “I had been concerned that you’d be all exposed ankles and wrists. I told Demarol that you’d need new uniforms when he saw you last year but when I asked, he said that you seemed fine.”

He hadn’t mentioned it to me at all. “I arranged a new set just in case, this is them.”

“Foresightful of you.” Her tone was arch. “Though you should change out of it while we travel. It wouldn’t do for you to reach the city in a school uniform.”

I blinked. “Here?” I wasn’t exactly one for body-modesty, but there were still some standards expected of dynasts in public.

“Nothing I’m interested in,” Mako told me, although he didn’t look back. “No offense, youngster.”

I suppose no one was going to be looking at me, this high up. “What do you suggest I wear? Most of my tunics are a little on the small side.” And I didn’t have any pants that were a proper length except my uniform ones. I was glad it was summer right now or Lyta would have had more to taunt me for.

Yrina sighed heavily. “I see this visit is overdue,” she mused. “The uniform tunic then, but put something else over it.”

I removed the jacket and opened my first case, glad that I’d packed it carefully. It was a little troublesome to keep control of my white surcoat as I took it off, the wind almost swept it from my hands. As I made sure it was secure in the case, I noted the angle of the sun and the position of Meru. I didn’t expect to go far north until we were past the foothills of the vast mountain, but even so we were slowly veering away from it.

“Which city are we going to?” I asked, going into the other case for the blue-on-blue dress I’d worn to the banquet two years ago. It would be too short on its own now, not indecent but obviously not cut for me anymore. However, over my school tunic it should look decorative.

“That’s nice,” Yrina said approvingly as she held me steady to pull it on over my head. “Where did you get it?”

“I stitched it together out of some dresses Tepet Iyuki donated when there was too much competition for the dressmakers in Lord’s Crossing. Back before the banquet for Icole and the other students entering the House of Bells.”

“Very talented, is that something they teach at school?”

“There are classes,” I confirmed. “And I watched in Juche when Lotus Stem was putting my uniforms together. It seemed like a useful skill to have.”

“You may enjoy this then. To answer your question, we’re going to the Imperial City. It’s time to extend your wardrobe a little for social events and they have the best shops for this. Juche is very good, but there’s just that little bit better in the city. And new uniforms shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Thank you for taking the time to do this for me.” The trip to Juche last time had been the longest time Yrina had specifically spent with me until now but it seemed that she would be spending even more time with me this summer.

She shook her head. “It’s a mother’s responsibility. And I am quite proud of your handling of Tepet Emari. I could wish that I’d received that level of support back when I was in her position.”

I paused and looked up at her. It was hard to imagine her as nervously out of place as Emari in those early days… but if my mother had been adopted herself, it was likely that she had been. And it explained why father would have married another Tepet. By marrying an adoptee he’d have tied her into the family and ensured that his children would remain in the House. Given that he’d been planning to found his own household since shortly after he exalted, that must have been a calculated decision on his part.

Admittedly, his parents presumably had had a strong say as well, but I could see the political thinking behind it.

“I believe Serakan bent your ear about marriage previously.” Yrina studiously ignored the gesture Mako made at that name – an old and storied gesture of warding off evil that was questionable in its usefulness. “I would have preferred to wait until you were older, and deliver that myself. She has hardly done very well with her own daughter in that respect… although I must say that Elana has been quite successful in her actual career.”

“It wasn’t too traumatising, mother.”

“I’m glad to hear that. You needn’t expect an actual marriage to be arranged until you’re at least twenty, but you’re old enough now that some people will want to meet you and see if you might be worth introducing to their sons once you’re closer to the right age.”

“Twenty.” A decade away, double my current age. It seemed like it might fly by alarmingly quickly.

Yrina chuckled drily. “Don’t worry about it, I’d be very surprised if we actually arranged anything that soon. If you have any thoughts of a career to begin or extended studies such as the Heptagram, it could easily be put off until your thirties. However, you’re showing all the signs of having an unusually strong degree of breeding. That being the case, you can expect more offers than most girls your age – even among the Exalted. And a comparatively early marriage could lock in an alliance if we need one. It’s hard to say what could develop politically so if you do find someone that you wish to marry, an understanding could move to a formal engagement or even the actual wedding ceremony faster than you might expect.”

I paused and then shrugged. “Lady Serakan said I might find boys more interesting that way in time. So far it hasn’t happened, but I don’t have any particular issues getting along with them either, which is probably more important.”

She gave me a rueful look. “If she instructed you to keep those two matters separated then she gave good advice. Unlike your father – or other men – we don’t have the luxury of looking over a bastard before we decided to keep it. It’s very difficult to hide a pregnancy, particularly with how eager vultures like Serakan are for gossip. And if you get yourself with a child in your belly before you’re married, there will be hard choices to make.”

“One of these things that I just have to accept even if it makes no sense to me?”

Mako laughed. “Well said, little one. The world is full of things like that.”

“Mako.” Yrina’s tone was warning. “I am grateful for taking the time to bring me here and collect Alina, but please don’t give her foolish ideas.”

“But how can I tell what’s a foolish idea or not?”

“If it makes you laugh, it’s most assuredly foolish.”

There was no real fire to the words and I wondered how long they had known each other.

“After you’re married there can be more flexibility.” Yrina turned away from the sorcerer and didn’t meet my eyes either. “Your father and I have had an understanding for several years, thus his adoption of you. I felt it was better, given the chances of your exalting – as you did – to raise you within the household rather than potentially have to catch up as I did.”

That made a considerable degree of sense. I had wondered why father had done that rather than simply pay child support if he recognised me. On the other hand, it raised the question of whether Demarol had informed Yrina that he hadn’t actually sired me.

Then another thought hit me. She was speaking from personal experience about being adopted. Was she also speaking from experience about bastards… in that she might have had an illegitimate child herself?

I wondered if that meant that one of my living siblings wasn’t Demarol’s child… or perhaps the boy who’d joined the Immaculate Order had been the result of an affair.

I doubted Yrina would ever come out and say it. So, I might never know.

I personally felt that Yrina’s view that the dressmakers of the Imperial City were better than Lotus Stem was a little bit severe. I couldn’t claim that I had seen everything that the mortal woman could do in the relatively brief interlude there, but pressure can bring out the best in a craftsman and the fact she’d been able to provide me with sufficient uniforms to tide me over for the first month at Root and Reed School was actually quite impressive.

This wasn’t to say that any of the shops we went to were bad – far from it – but there was a very relaxed feel to proceedings and we might spend a day or more in a single shop, drinking tea with the other customers and potentially not buying anything at all.

I’ll admit to being a little slow on such matters: it wasn’t until the third shop that I realised that these little chats with the other people visiting the shops was as important, if not more so, than the clothes.

The social network I’d experienced so far were the occasional grand galas arranged by my father, smaller and more intimate salons among the Tepet and occasional other dynasts in Lord’s Crossing, and then visits that seemed almost random as people happened to find it convenient or easy to guest at the estate overnight or perhaps a little longer before continuing to or from Juche.

That shopping was also a social event surprised me more than it probably should. Then again, I was more used to being on the crafting side and once I left Nexus it was fairly rare for me to be making something that wasn’t either for my immediate circle of companions or for some project we had undertaken.

Perhaps some of my earlier customers had visited my little workshop for much the same reason as this? I’d had to provide some hospitality for that – I recalled being irritated that it effectively added three additional members to my household staff.

The things you learn…

I was being measured (not for a uniform but for a formal gown that was to have plenty of room to adjust to fit me on formal occasions for the next few years) when Yrina stood swiftly from where she had been sat and curtseyed to the redheaded woman who entered the shop with her own cluster of servants.

For a moment I had the horrifying thought that I was facing Her Scarlet Majesty herself – or worse, her oldest living daughter. The hair was right but to my relief I then realised that the clothes were all wrong and there was an identifiable grapevine motif to the mon on the livery of the new arrival. The resemblance made sense all of a sudden. This was Mnemon’s half-sister V’Neef, matriarch of the fledgling Great House of the same name.

Yrina’s formal greetings were cut off as V’Neef swept into her personal space and kissed her on both cheeks. “Yrina, it’s been so long. I thought I was going to have to send you some kind of bribe to get you out of Juche at last.”

“Your invitations have been very welcome,” the air-aspect replied, seeming slightly taken aback. “And it’s been a wrench every time for me to send my regrets but our household has been growing rapidly and family politics reared its head.”

V’Neef took her arm and seated herself on the couch next to my mother. “My own family has yet to catch up with yours, but I do have some idea of what you must be going through.”

Still effectively pinned in place, I watched them as refreshments were served and the servants were edged backwards to provide some degree of apparent privacy and therefore intimacy between the two dynastic ladies, while still being close enough to serve them.

Yrina had never mentioned being close to V’Neef and the status of co-leading the Demarol household (or exactly what the balance of power was there, a matter that remained opaque to me) was quite a bit different from the sole head of an entire Great House. Even if there were fewer V’Neef by blood, they had quite a number of adopted members, and controlled enormously more wealth than Demarol did. And had senators on the upper Deliberative, while so far as I knew none of the household were among Tepet’s representatives.

I wasn’t surprised that they knew each other, but V’Neef was acting as if they were old friends.

Finally, the dress was pinned in place and I was released from being measured to the nth degree. More importantly, I was allowed to eat some of the food that was on offer. Growing takes fuel and I really hoped to get a good many inches over the next few years.

I wasn’t sure if edging close enough to hear the conversation would be a transgression at this point, so I positioned myself in view and let them make the decision.

I wasn’t particularly surprised that it was V’Neef making the decision. She feigned seeing me for the first time and beckoned me over. “So, you must be the daughter that I have heard so much of.”

“I would not have thought there would be much to say. I’m only ten.”

She covered her mouth and laughed politely. “The fact that you are only ten and have been exalted for three of those years is one thing that makes you remarkable. But I have heard that you are also doing well at school. Do you have plans for once you graduate?”

I didn’t see any clue from Yrina if she expected me to say anything specific so all I could do was stick to the simple truth. “General Arada recommended spending some time broadening horizons before committing to anything. I have been discussing with the sifu at my school whether applying to the Cloister of Wisdom would be a possibility, but it awaits some discussion with my family.”

V'Neef arched her eyebrows at that. “The Cloister… are you considering the Immaculate Order?”

I shook my head, noting that Yrina seemed relieved. “I’d like to study the martial arts, like mother.” Hopefully I wasn’t reading too much into her wearing a hearthstone that specifically benefited the martial arts. She had the right build and calluses.

“I can see that you’ve made a strong impression,” the redhead assured my mother, who looked as if she wasn’t sure if she should be proud or just surprised. Presumably at ‘like mother’ since it was hardly a secret that I had good reports from both the sifu at school, sifu Shoku at home and that Tepet Jita evaluated me every year. “Will you be joining the legions then?”

“I don’t know. I might serve with them for a few years, but I don’t know if I want it to be my life.” I might not have much choice though. It was entirely possible that by the time I finished at the Cloister or wherever I went for my next school that the Tepet Legions would have been shattered. In that case, every Tepet fit to serve would be expected to.

Being under military discipline would severely hamper my freedom to act. Unfortunately, I was just too blasted young! Why couldn’t I have been reborn five or ten years earlier?

The conversation veered away from me and before long the dressmaker requested my presence for a second fitting of the dress now that it was partly sewed.

More than an hour later, we were done and mother called a palanquin to carry us back to the Tepet wing of the Imperial Palace. (A necessary distinction. The palace at Lord’s Crossing was the size of a small town but you could have fitted most of Juche inside the walls of the Imperial Palace. Political battles over a corridor, garden or favoured apartment were sometimes as fierce as those over entire satrapies.)

Yrina leant back against the cushions of the palanquin. “What do you make of V’Neef’s interest in you?”

I thought back to how Emari had answered a similar question. “Given my age, she can only be investing for the future. Perhaps setting up one of her adopted children to marry me one day? I don’t have the right aspect for her house and my children would be Tepet.”

“Normally, yes.” Yrina shook her head slightly. “Think longer term.”

“A… multi-generational arrangement?”

She nodded. “Correct. I know she has sought an arrangement to have a promising wood-aspected girl in the Sesus Denerid household marry one of her sons on terms that their children would be V’Neef, rather than the girl’s house. Sesus Denerid Gutar declined.”

The Denerid household were in some ways Demarol’s counterparts in House Sesus – the youngest of the households and with a less martial tradition than their cousins. However, they had also intermarried heavily with House Cynis to the point that the wood-aspect dominated rather than the more typical fire-aspects of their parent House.

It occurred to me that their example might be why the Tepet elders had been concerned to tie Demarol more closely to traditional Tepet values and bloodlines.

“If she’s looking a generation or two down the road, I imagine that she’s hitting limits in finding strong wood-aspected bloodlines without tying herself even more closely to House Cynis,” I said at last. It was the only other House that had a wood-aspected majority. Wood and Water were the two least common aspects within the Scarlet Dynasty, with House Cynis and House Peleps as their predominant representatives while there were two well-established Houses for each of the other three elemental aspects.

In theory House Iselsi and House V’Neef balanced this, but the former was almost extinct and kept around as little more than an example of how low a treacherous House could fall, while House V’Neef was by far the smallest Great House.

Yrina patted me approvingly on the top of my head. “Indeed. She cannot afford to find herself reduced to little more than a tributary of the Cynis. If she marries you to a wood-aspected adoptee it’s possible that the result may be one or more of your children inherited his aspect and the… precocious strength of your blood. I would expect any such arrangement to include a contract that gives her the option to bring resulting sons back into House V’Neef.”

“It seems something of a gamble.”

My mother smiled. “If you have no sons, or none she cares to bring into her family then all she is out is one adoptee’s hand in marriage. And, in the meanwhile, she has your father’s support in high society, a more distant claim on military support from our House… and we may lean upon her financially. While our household is on a sound financial footing there is no harm in further securing it.”

She stretched out her legs and then smiled. “Of course, she would therefore want a marriage to someone who doesn’t want to sink themselves entirely into a career at the expense of children. Your answers were… sufficient that I believe she’ll remain interested. Now, what’s this about wishing to attend the Cloister? I don’t recall this being raised previously.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Politics in government have nothing on inter-clan relations. At least in Government, there's more rules on what can and can't be done.

Nice to point out that yes, women bleed. You don't have to go into more detail than that. I somehow doubt an Exalted has to deal with physically debilitating cramps that leave a mortal curled in bed with heating pads and lortab.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Resplendent Earth

Fortunately for my hastily improvised explanation, my lawful mother wasn’t opposed to my attending the Cloister of Wisdom. In fact, Yrina had been a student there herself and had gradually worked her way up to a solid grasp of the Immaculate Air Dragon style. She wasn’t a master, but it’s a worthy accomplishment.

The martial styles I had practised, both openly and secretly, were what are considered to be the root of martial arts, sometimes referred to as Terrestrial styles – those that are primarily used by the Dragon-Blooded and the occasional enlightened mortals.

But just as a mortal can force themselves to the heights required to perform these styles, a Terrestrial Exalt can with great effort and the right teachers be initiated into greater arts. The stem, if you will, of the martial arts world. Intended for the use of Celestial Exalted, they are far more demanding and very rarely found these days outside of the Immaculate Order and their splinter sects.

For each elemental aspect, ancient martial artists crafted a specialised style that is fractionally easier for Terrestrial martial artists of the correct aspect to learn. These immaculate arts are one of the greatest advantages the Immaculate Order has, and how they were devised is a much-mythologised part of the Order’s history.

Even when I was throwing light on some of the erroneous parts of their doctrine in my past life, I didn’t tell them that they were originally a glorified courier service taught the arts by renegade Celestial Exalted. Sometimes you have to craft the message for your audience.

A full master of even one Immaculate style must be not only at or beyond the mortal peak of martial arts control but possess essence control of the fourth or fifth mortal plateau, putting them solidly in the top tenth or so of the Scarlet Dynasty and possibly the top twentieth of all Terrestrial Exalted. A tiny handful of Immaculate monks have even mastered multiple styles. They are acclaimed as grand masters and only a fool would need to ask why.

To have reached the upper levels of just one style, alongside all her other activities was worthy of great respect and I accorded it freely. Yrina, for her part, seemed pleased at the notion that I – adopted or not – wished to emulate her path. She even added a bar of jade to my stipend, leaving me at a stroke with more money on hand than I had since I was formally granted direct access to the stipend.

It wasn’t an actual bar, unfortunately. That would have been an eighth of a talent – an entire eight and a half pounds of white jade. However, bars are more of a money of account, so what I actually received was one hundred and twenty-eight obols that weighed a bit more than five and a half pounds in total. The process of carving coins from a rectangular slab (the talent and bar both being standard measurements for such slabs) leaves quite a lot of fragments, after all, which would have been sold by the Imperial Treasury to various crafters for use in making jade-steel.

Why did this matter to me? Well, what about my story so far suggests I was going to spend those coins?

“I’m fairly sure this is sacrilegious, somehow,” Udano observed dubiously as he worked the bellows for me in the school’s forge.

I wiped my brow. This was damned hot work. “Udano, people still cut obols into bits when they need to spend less than a whole obol on something, and that’s technically illegal.”

He almost broke his pace with the bellows and I noticed the temperature inside the forge drop fractionally. “Illegal? Why – is it defacing the currency?”

“Rebels during the Unbroken Rushes Rebellion were using them as recognition tokens between cells,” Aijou told him.

The patrician was in his final year and his exaltation had been a great surprise to everyone. I’d invited him along because his family controlled much of the weaving industry around Tuchara and he’d flatly claimed that what I was doing was impossible. When I proved him wrong – and I would - I’d have maintained a degree of dominance as the senior Exalted student even if I wasn’t the oldest. Also, I’d have another obol to melt down.

Because that was what I was doing. A crucible inside the forge contained four of the coins, as well as layers of more mundane materials – mostly silver (guild-minted dinars I’d traded for) and iron in this case. I held the crucible in long tongs, relying on a sturdy apron, crystal goggles over my eyes and my (un)natural durability as an Earth-aspected Exalt to resist the heat.

The contents were melting nicely and mixing as a result. If I’d got the results right, then they’d give me a batch of incredibly tensile jadesteel – not really the ideal material for armour or weapons requiring hardness, but to spin into wire and then down to actual threads, it would be ideal.

“You’re throwing away a fortune,” Aijou warned me in a friendly fashion. “No one will even give you weight value for jade once you adulterate it like this. Remember to keep one obol back to pay me when you lose.”

I extracted the crucible, letting Udano relax from his pumping and held the tongs with one hand. Then I channelled some essence into my hand and dipped a finger into the contents.

The wood-aspected patrician shrieked in alarm.

“…what the hell?” I asked him, stirring the molten metal with my finger. “You almost made me drop the crucible. I’m not paying if you sabotage me.”

“…How do you even have fingers left?” he asked, white-faced as I took my finger out and watched the metal dripping off. It was almost viscous enough.

“It’s a kind of magic.” Look, give me a straight line like that…

I poured the metal into a carefully crafted clay mould that would render it into bars, then wiped my finger fastidiously on the edge of the crucible before wiping the final residue off with a rag I set aside to burn and reclaim the metal from later.

Even a few scrapings were valuable. This was jade!

“Jade thread isn’t too bad,” I told him. “It’d be easier with starmetal, admittedly. That’s practically ideal, you barely have to alloy it for this.”

Aijou shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve never even seen starmetal. I didn’t even know it existed until I exalted and got access to the Exalted shelves in the library.”

Udano rubbed the back of his head. “Starmetal?”

“It’s another magical material,” I explained. “It’s not quite as… questionable as orichalcum and moonsilver in the eyes of the Immaculate Order, but it’s very very rare and correspondingly expensive.”

It shouldn’t actually be quite as hard to come by as it was, although it was certainly the rarest of the five major magical metals. A certain group went out of their way to pick up every bit that entered circulation by hook, crook or – if absolutely necessary – by paying obscene prices for it. And I do mean obscene.

It was a great shame, because I’d… well, not kill for it.

…well, depending on the specific, I might be willing to kill for it actually. I mean, not just some random individual, but if someone wanted me to kill, say, Filial Wisdom, then sure. I’d done it before, after all.

(Okay, I hadn’t been alone for that one and I’d been a lot older and stronger than I was. I still wouldn’t have had any moral scruples. Filial Wisdom was a blight on Creation and freeing his exaltation for a more worthy host could only make the world a better place. Hopefully Lytek would ensure his memories were never passed to a future host.)

“If I had any, I’d be using it,” I assured Aijou. “Alas, I doubt anyone bar Her Scarlet Majesty and a few of the Great Houses’ top artisans have any.”

The normal construction methods for what I was planning would have required twice as much jade and at least a few ounces of starmetal. I wasn’t sure I could get the full effectiveness without the starmetal but it shouldn’t be useless.

I lifted the mould and walked over to the rollers. “Right, if you’d be so good Udano, I’d rather start this before the metal’s fully cooled.”

The rollers had a series of grooves in them, each grove along them narrower than the next. One step at a time, I’d turn the metal into a longer and narrower bar, using rollers and draw plates until it had the flexibility of wire.

“Remember, the bet was for thread,” Aijou told me as he followed. “Not just wire.”

“I will have threads as fine as silk out of this,” I assured him. “That obol is as good as mine.”

There was no going home again.

Well, I could. I was back in the Demarol manse again. But part of that was the point. I was staying in the manse this summer, not the children’s courtyard.

And Medra was dead.

Medra was dead and no one had told me.

I’d been away for almost four years and halfway through it, Medra had - according to Ishah – simply not woken up. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that I might want to know that.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to rage.

Of course, she was mortal and of course mortals died. We Exalted could - and did - die too. It was how Creation worked and objectively I knew that somewhere her soul would be reborn. The endless cycle of life and death.

That no one really seemed to care was second only to the fact that… I hadn’t written to her since my first year. She couldn’t afford the cost to reply and Iyuki had told me that it was frowned on to show too much affection to servants, at least publicly.

I, of all people, had yielded to peer pressure.

I wanted time to think, to grieve. To mediate not on my essence, but on the shame I felt at letting myself fall into the sort of callousness that I had held others to account for.

So of course, father was hosting a gala. Because the pattern spiders have to have their drama.

“As hunting went so well for you last time, perhaps you can take Nalan and Doreg out with you,” he proposed the morning before the first guests arrived. The Exalted of the household were gathered around a table in father’s study, discussing the final arrangements. As an Exalt, my presence was required, as a child my contributions were not. “Maybe your luck will rub off on them.”

That sounded awfully as if he’d decided that the two were overdue to exalt. Which was a bit harsh as they were only twelve. People had exalted as late as twenty, although that was almost as unusual as my own case.

“Thank you for the offer, father, but I was hoping to participate in the Gateway tournament,” I offered. Spending most of two days with Doreg was not something I’d welcome, even without Hunt to stir him up. And Nalan was decidedly lukewarm on hunting.

“Are you sure?” asked Etune. I’d never met Icole’s grandfather before this summer, as he’d spent a decade stationed in Greyfalls since the death of his mortal wife. I assumed he’d worked through the grief since he’d openly stated he was looking for a new bride now that he was back on the Blessed Isle. “We’re hunting boar, so you might manage to kill one yourself this time.”

“I wouldn’t wish to harm your courting prospects by out-hunting you, elder brother.”

Etune stared at me and then threw back his head and laughed. “I’d like to see that, little sister. But you’re right, I should secure myself a new bride first.”

And thus, as the hunting party set out; I got to spend time in the garden, where several tables had been set out with boards for Gateway, the preferred strategic game of the Scarlet Dynasty for the last three hundred or so years. Given that two infamous players (including Cathak Cacek who had invented the game!) were present, I had a sneaky feeling that I wasn’t going to win. But it would be nice to at least make a strong showing.

The pairings were chosen at random, with my mother drawing names from a vase.

“Tepet Demarol Alina,” she declared and I was drawn out of my thoughts as she reached into the vase again. “Will face… Ragara Nova.”

The man who responded was a short and broad man with his blond hair washed back with some sort of pomade that I could smell from several yards away. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent, just distinctive. He was dressed well and after a moment I placed him as the governor of Chanos, a major military port on the north coast.

He certainly didn’t seem like a soldier, but that meant nothing. Any adult Dragon-Blood was expected to be able to pick up a weapon and perform as an officer whatever their daily life involved. It was possible for all I knew that he’d spent a century with the legions – or that he was a pledged shikari who had fought many Anathema.

His name didn’t jump out at me for anything but Chanos, though.

Walking to one of the tables he drew back one of the chairs and then bowed graciously, offering it to me. “Permit me to offer you this courtesy, my fellow Child of Pasiap, before I destroy you on the game board.”

I offered him a polite nod and accepted the seat. “Only a fool refuses courtesy, and only a greater fool counts a battle won before it is begun.”

He laughed. “Well said. I look forward to a challenging game.”

We set out the pieces and began the match with no further ceremony. We both knew the rules and there was no need to wait on observers since the majority of those who had stayed to watch were focusing on more famous players.

Nova’s strategy was systematic and methodical, pinning down one corner of the board at a time, while refusing to be drawn into any expensive exchanges of pieces. It was the classic earth-aspect approach to strategy and one I knew well.

I was also aware of its weakness, the potential to crush it with a hasty attack before he had all his pieces in place to dominate. But the opening I saw for this was curiously obvious, either he was underestimating me considerably - not impossible when faced with a mere eleven-year-old – or he was baiting a trap.

After considering my options, I elected to instead give the appearance of similar caution while setting a few pieces in place to exploit what seemed likely to be the focus of his play if he was seriously going to play the long game.

He seemed almost disappointed by my caution and after an hour of play, his pieces advanced steadily into the centre. If he took that then he’d have a commanding position to pick apart my own forces.

Several games had ended already, including those of Cathak Cacek and the other well-known player, Ledaal Kes. Still, no one bothered us particularly, only a couple of defeated players coming to watch us while the two masters dissected their games in retrospect, offering polite advice to their defeated opponents. I assume that the chance for a master class was certainly more interesting than seeing a child be knocked out in the first round.

Or perhaps it was Nova they thought so little of.

In any case, I moved two pieces as if I had not yet realised that he was moving on the centre and with a disappointed sigh he made an unmistakable move of force directly into the centre. “And that decides the game, I believe.”

I looked at the board and then gave him a smile. “I think it might, but indulge me and play it out?”

“I suppose.” Nova leant back in his chair.

I moved my pieces and the man blinked. Then he leant forwards, calculating the pieces positions anew. I had ignored the centre and crushed one flank entirely.

And with that, his attack on the centre was transformed from a devastating advantage to a dire position, with my own pieces threatening him from every angle.

He snorted, and then laughed out loud. “I believe my words were right, even if I was wrong about the victor.” Reaching out, he tipped his general over. “Your game, young general.”

“Thank you, Lord Ragara.”

“Please.” He waved his hand dismissively. “I’m merely escaping my responsibilities here and we’re both Exalted. But excuse me if I go find a lady more my own years to console me on that thrashing.” He rose from his chair and then bowed deeply before departing.

I studied the board. I wouldn’t have said that it was decided yet – he was at a disadvantage but I could see a couple of ways to extricate his key pieces, making me pay for the rest. It wouldn’t be an equal exchange but he still had a strong base in one corner.

Then again, if these were real soldiers would it be justifiable to expend them in battle or better to seek a negotiated settlement using those potential losses as a bargaining chip? A moot point on the game board but…

Or perhaps he was just not that good. I could be overthinking it.

I tapped my lips. No, he’d seen exactly what I’d done. He was good enough… Which suggested that he didn’t want to win in the first place.

Mmm.

I shrugged and reset the board for the next players and was about to see about some of the canapes when I saw a surprising face.

“Alina!” Tepet Elana exclaimed loudly. She wore the same armour as before but there was a new addition to her chest, a cloak brooch that marked a status very different from a Talonlord in the Imperial Army.

“Elana.” I crossed the grass to her and she clasped my forearms with both hands in greeting. “My congratulations.”

“On this?” the Realm’s newest magistrate glanced down at her badge of office deprecatingly. “I’m still not sure why I have it.”

“I was thinking more of surviving the cannibals and Her Scarlet Majesty.”

She snorted at the mild irreverence. “I’m not sure which was more dangerous, but with the first I couldn’t leave our wounded behind.”

“That might be why you got the new job, but obviously I wasn’t consulted.” I looked around and saw the last matches wrapping up. Mother was already preparing the vase again with more names.

“So, what’s going on here. You’re not out hunting?”

“No, there’s a Gateway tournament.”

“You play competitively?”

I shook my head. “I wasn’t keen about going hunting.”

Rather than chide me, she gave me a rough pat on the shoulder. “I understand. I’m mainly here for an excuse to avoid my mother until she calms down about how much my appointment has improved my marriage prospects.”

I blinked. “You’re going to cruise the party circuit for the next forty years?”

She laughed. “Well, until I have a clear-cut reason to visit one of the satrapies on duty. And she’s not wrong that I probably should marry now that I’m out of the legions. She can set up some meetings while I’m away. Go play your next match and I’ll watch. Don’t expect any advice though. I’m more of a dice player by preference.”

I turned towards my mother and then paused. “Watch out for my brother Etune. He’s looking for a second wife.”

She shrugged. “Might be a little young for me.”

Mother gave me a pleased look as I returned. Had she not expected me to beat Ragara Nova?

I was the sixth name drawn this time… and the fifth had been Ledaal Kes. The infamous player didn’t draw my chair out for me, he just sat down with a drink beside him. I suspect he didn’t expect to need longer than it would take to finish that to finish me off.

Elana moved up behind me. “I don’t want to shake your confidence, but…”

“Yeah.” I met Kes’ confident gaze with a steady refusal to be shaken and he tilted his head to one side and then shrugged it off.

“So, you’re the prodigy that exalted even younger than I did.” He made his first move. “Did you get poked and prodded at much for the months afterwards?”

“Not so much as I recall.” I set out a cautious offense to cover for a discreet defensive strategy.

“Ah, I am envious. They made my first months at school hell,” he recalled. “Which didn’t do much for fitting in after that.”

“I think the elders of my house may have preferred a longer-term examination,” I told him, recalling the lengthy grilling by the elders after my first two years.

“Ah well.” And then he launched an offense that savaged my probing attack with little finesse and looked prone to smash right into the defences I was setting up.

Well, it was unlikely he’d waste some complex and incisive strategy on a child. I resisted the temptation to respond to the reckless attack and settled in to grind him down.

After four more moves, Kes picked up his glass and drained it. “You impressed her Redness,” he told Elana. “Although I think as much with your denseness as anything. Did you really almost walk away from her propositioning her?”

There was an embarrassed silence and then Elana laughed. “Very nearly. I’m just an honest soldier.”

“You’d better grow out of it,” he advised her without rancour and then leaned forwards to examine the board. “Did you know I played her at gateway once, when I was about your age?”

I did, but I denied it.

“She beat me. She probably could have crushed me, but it dragged out a bit.” He paused, “not out of courtesy, she just didn’t care I think.”

“And why show her hand?”

“Correct.” And then he moved three pieces in rapid succession and I saw my defensive line was about to be torn in two.

Without hesitation I collapsed my defence and shifted every piece that I could across the board to attack his rear. There was something disorientating about playing with the bulk of his pieces on my side of the board and vice versa.

The game went to a conclusion by points and I have no doubt that he was holding back, but I like to think I made him work for the win.

The white jade used in obols was by far the most common colour of the material available from mines on and under the Blessed Isle, associated as it was with the Pole of Earth. This was fortuitous as this is the variety of jade that meshes best with the essence of Earth-aspected Terrestrials.

I had woven the jade thread I had spun into long strips, edging them with wire and wound them into cylinders measured to fit over my forearms. The way that these strips were interwoven was such that tugging one end tightened them enough to secure them around my arms while tugging the other end of that same strip (usually folded safely away) would loosen them enough to remove.

If I had been able to get my hands on the starmetal I wanted, I would have embroidered the strips with sutras, turning them into prayer strips praising the Maiden of Endings and the lesser deities concerned with the constellation of the Sword. In my past life I had possessed bracers of that kind, though forged of solid strips of jade almost an inch thick.

There was no way I could afford that much jade. And while I didn’t have the strength of mastery of essence yet that I remembered, I at least remember the lessons I at least remembered the lessons in crafting artifacts that I had picked up after making those bracers – including how to spin jade into thread and turn it into cloth.

“I’ve never seen someone work jade like this.” The school had called in Ledaal Phaestis to examine the bracers. “I wouldn’t have thought you had enough jade here to have any significant benefit.”

“The quantity, in this case, should matter less than the proportion.”

The older exalt nodded his greying head. “I see. The result of many seasons of work, I would assume. Who helped you with this?”

Udano and Emari straightened as the old crafter glanced at them, but then he looked past them.

“I couldn’t have made them without Udano’s strength and Emari’s eye for detail,” I told him diplomatically.

“Yes, but from whom did you learn this technique?”

“It’s my idea.”

Phaestis stared at me and then removed his spectacles from where he’d pushed them on his forehead after examining the bracers. (They weren’t for correcting a deficiency in his vision unless you consider an inability to view things at a microscopic level to be a deficiency). Pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket, he began go polish the magnifying lenses absently. “You invented this yourself?”

“She really did,” Emari confirmed.

Beside her, Udano nodded firmly. “Won some good money off people who were convinced it couldn’t be done.”

“I do not generally wager on such challenges,” the Ledaal artificer observed, looking at me with keen eyes. “However, if someone had presented the proposition to me, I might have made an exception. If that someone was a child of… you are ten years old? Younger than that?”

I was not that small! “Twelve this summer.”

“Humph. I would have wagered. And in this case, I would have lost my stakes. Root and Reed School is not generally renowned for producing artificers… not that your teachers are bad but it simply does not draw students with an aptitude for that, which is a self-reinforcing trend…” Phaestis grimaced.

“Generally speaking, exploring a road not travelled results in finding reasons why it is not used,” I conceded. “Sometimes, though…”

“Quite.” He turned the bracer over in his hand and then returned it to the workbench, next to the other of the pair. “I confess I am more intrigued by the process you have developed than the actual result. What were you aiming to create?”

“Something similar to the Perfected Kata Bracers I have heard that the Wyld Hunt sometimes employ.” Such artifacts significantly enhanced the skill and strength of a martial art using a supernatural form of martial arts.

He tilted his head. “That is quite ambitious and I trust you will not be offended if I say that I am not surprised that you fell short.”

As a rule, the crafting of artifacts was constrained less by the complexity of the physical construction and more by the need to precisely lay artificial essence flows through the artifact. Jadesteel blades and armour were comparatively simple, but the only examples of Perfected Kata Bracers I was aware of had been crafted by masters who had reached the first immortal court of essence control.

It was no surprise that they were incredibly rare.

With all that said, if I could get some starmetal – or figure out how to obtain the same result with black jade, orichalcum or perhaps a combination of the two…

That was my current best theory, although that was all it was: a theory. Getting the orichalcum would raise eyebrows at a middling high level within the bureaucracy of the Realm. The Thousand Scales had many differing priorities, but monitoring anyone buying a metal closely associated with the golden Anathema – otherwise known as the Solar Exalted – was fairly high up the list.

I had no plans to try that, at least until I had managed to confirm on paper that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.

“Mild protective benefits and a slight advantage to the essence flows of supernatural martial arts forms,” Phaestis summarised my accomplishment, such as it was. “Worthy my attention, but far from your goal. However, if this can be applied… hmm. Labour time would be impacted, but if we can cut the need for jade in our alloys… you used silver?”

I nodded.

“Hmm. Bolstering the value of silver would have economic effects,” he concluded grudgingly. “I’d have trouble selling it as a mechanism for most items, but for precise mechanisms and those demanding large quantities of jade… this could shave entire talents of jade from the cost of constructing parts of a warstrider. Not to mention warbirds, which would see a weight-saving.”

Udano wordlessly extended his fist towards me and I reached over and bumped my own knuckles against his, enjoying the brief moment of triumph at being recognised. And then I had to face the unfortunate side: if this had major military significance…

“I take it then that we must consider the process a secret of the Realm?”

The old man gave me a sympathetic look and then straightened, less the fellow crafter and more one of the Legions’ most senior sorcerer-technicians. “Officially, yes. Since your schoolmates have seen them already, my formal report will cite your work as marginally acceptable within formal regulations, but as a dead-end with no larger applications and, indeed, markedly inferior to normal practise. I see no need to penalise you – for a school project it is exceptional.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He patted me on the head. “Informally, the Scarlet Empress will be informed and we may explore a trial of the technique on a larger scale. A public act of destroying your notes in a fit of anger at being told that your work is a novel toy at best would be advisable.”

I sighed. “Out of character for me. However, a mysterious prank destroying them and my – unsupported – suspicions of a student with reasons to undercut me…?”

Phaestis smiled. “Clever girl. Yes. Complete your education and hone that mind carefully. Where do you plan to study next?”

“I have no definite plans.”

“You obviously have the mind for the Heptagram but even if you decide otherwise, I would be happy to arrange an apprenticeship with one of my colleagues. The legions can never have enough sorcerer-technicians.”

The old man left us to make his report to the teaching staff and I studied the bracers for a moment and then slipped them in. “Oops.”

“I don’t understand,” Emari admitted. “If it’s a good idea then why will he judge them a failure?”

“Imagine if Lookshy picked up on the technique and started using it for their own warstriders,” explained Udano. “Or whatever other uses that Lord Phaestis ultimately applies it to. If the Realm’s enemies know that Alina had invented something like this, she’d be a target to acquire those secrets.”

“Oh.”

I shrugged. “Well, at least he didn’t insist that I destroy the bracers.” I slipped them on and tightened them.

Emari put one arm around my shoulders and leaned down to kiss my cheek. “Well, I’m proud of you, even if no one but the three of us knows about what you’ve done.”

It was nicer, I found, to have her somewhat unqualified approval even than the conditional praise offered by Ledaal Phaestis.

I was brought back to Juche again after my fifth year at school. Two years in a row, was this some sort of a record? Or perhaps relations with the main household had been sufficiently repaired. It was hard to be sure.

Rather than facing the five elders there, I was instead called to father’s study on my first morning back. He and mother were sitting behind the table and I was directed to take one of the seats facing them.

“I won’t require you to demonstrate your skills as the elders did in earlier years,” Demarol assured me with a warm smile. “Your teachers have written glowing remarks about your performance and since their claims, for good and ill, have borne out in previous years I see no reason to doubt them now.”

So, what was I here for? Also, I doubt all the teachers were happy with me. I’d scraped through some classes where I just wasn’t invested. I think you can guess which.

The irony of only barely passing literature when I’m an avid reader was not lost on me.

“This leaves us with some decisions,” Yrina told me, with a sidelong look at her husband. “Alina, you may not realise it but you’ve completed all the requirements to graduate from Root and Reed School. You could spend another year there with your classmates – and then another year given your age – but all that would do was polish your weaker areas and it would be disruptive to teach to your level when most of the other students are behind you.”

I had to pause at that but now that I thought about it, there had been a few areas where I’d spent most of the year working on projects that hadn’t been much like those of Udano or Erika. Had the teachers been sneaking class material from the next year into what they were teaching me?

“I see.” I paused and then since they both looked at me in the expectation of more: “I assume that there are options you have in mind as alternatives?”

Mother leaned forwards. “I have written to the Cloister of Wisdom about admitting you as a student. With the endorsement of your school, they have advised that they are willing to let you take their entrance exam but only at the end of the next school year. Bringing you in one year early is as far as the teachers are willing to bend the usual requirements.”

“I assume,” Demarol added, “that your wishes have not changed?” I suspected it would go poorly for me if they had.

I pushed back my chair and bowed deeply. “Please accept my gratitude, father, mother. I am very glad to be given the chance to attend the Cloister of Wisdom and will do everything that I can not to let you down.”

“Very good then. That leaves the coming year.” He steepled his fingers. “General Arada does recommend a year of travel to broaden your horizons but I think that best left until you have completed your education. A twelve-year-old is rather young to be allowed to travel without guidance.”

On the one hand, I could probably manage. On the other, it would be enormously easier if I wasn’t so visibly a child. There was still too much baby fat in my cheeks to pass for even an unusually small adult. Dragon-Blooded tend not to age past their prime until they’re well past the second century (and sometimes not even then) and I was beginning to wonder if my early exaltation might have trapped me in an extended adolescence.

“Before we discuss that,” added Yrina, “There is the question of your future marriage plans. Have you considered your career options?”

“If you’re considering the Immaculate Order then it would be best not to move forwards with any discussions until you’ve completed your training and the Cloister and made a firm decision,” my father added.

I shook my head. “I don’t feel a calling to the more spiritual aspects of the order,” I admitted. “It’s the finest martial arts school in Creation but that’s all I’m looking for from it. I understand that I must accept their strictures while I’m there…”

“And they’ll cut off that pretty hair,” warned Demarol whimsically.

“More importantly there will be no making treats to eat.” Mother seemed to find that a more compelling advantage from her tone. Did she disapprove of that hobby? “For that matter, your experiments in crafting with jade will be off limits while you are there.”

“I understand.” I’d probably taken that as far as I could without starmetal and I doubted the monks would accept my practising with my handiwork either. Immaculate styles – both their exclusive celestial styles and the lesser Terrestrial styles – had rather specific expectations of what weapons were considered proper.

Bracers woven of jade thread would probably not qualify.

“Given that you’re planning to broaden your horizons after graduation, I don’t expect you to commit to anything.” Yrina folded her hands in satisfaction that I had accepted her warning. “But if you had to decide now, what would you wish to do?”

Travel to Nexus and kick the crap out of a very stupid sorcerer was probably not going to fly. “Given the traditions of our house, I think it would be wise to spend to several years of service in the Legions. A decade perhaps.” I looked at my lawful father. “I know that your years of service gave you a solid reputation before you found your own path in life.”

He touched the short daiklave still buckled at his side. “They did indeed.”

Yrina nodded. “That is also not something that I would feel comfortable with you exploring at your age. Even stationed in the Realm, a legion camp is no place for a child your age.”

“That then leaves us a few possibilities.” My father stopped fondling his sword. “You could stay here of course. The social life here in Juche would let you make valuable contacts for later in life but it must be said that it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter anyone close to your own age. There is also the possibility of putting your experience coaching elder Jita’s daughter to work by tutoring our current crop of youngsters.”

“Or she could travel to Lord’s Crossing with Etune,” added Yrina. “They would be happy to welcome you in that role and you could get some experience of marriage negotiations.”

“Has he found someone already?” I asked in surprise. I hadn’t heard anything about that and I’d been trying to keep in better touch with events here over the school year.

“No, which is one reason he’s going there. The other reason is that Icole seems to have been writing to a reasonably distant cousin at the Heptagram so we’re opening discussions with her immediate family in Lord’s Crossing. She’s Exalted, but as she’s elected for the path of a sorcerer, they may be willing to accept an unexalted husband.”

Yrina shook her head slightly. “Alina knows Tepet Iyuki.”

He blinked. “Oh yes, of course.”

I can only assume that he hadn’t bothered to check which school Iyuki had attended before the Heptagram. Still, good for Icole!

“If you have any other suggestions,” he continued. “Then this would be the right time to bring them up.”

“May I have a moment to think?” I asked. The prospect of going to the Cloister of Wisdom before I was fourteen was such a surprise that I hadn’t really considered this option. I’d go of course. The sooner I could get some more experience and go through the initiations to learn Earth Dragon style again, the better. But what to do in the meanwhile…

At their nods I closed my eyes in thought, walling everything out. Just my thoughts, the pulse of my blood and the distant pull of the Pole of Earth.

The pole of Earth. The Imperial Mountain, Meru. Site of the ancient ruined capital of the Solar Exalted and still full of dangers from their overthrow. The greatest city of all Creation had been thrown down and it was still not fully explored given the many ancient hazards. I’d visited it more than once in the ninth century and there had still been resources there for those who could penetrate the horrors unleashed there.

Today the mountain was closed save to the monks of the Immaculate Order and the pilgrims who walked the mountain trails between the monasteries that dotted Meru, the monks working to maintain secure routes and keep the dangers in check.

I opened my eyes. “I would like permission to spend the next year on martial pilgrimage,” I told my parents. “Climbing the Imperial Mountain and preparing my soul for the process of studying at the Cloister.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as that, of course.

Even if I was an earth-aspect and following established trails (or at least, I piously pretended that I would be doing that rather than digging into the ruins), the Imperial Mountain would be dangerous terrain for a traveller. It was high and cold on the sides, except where the ancient climate controls that had made a city around the summit instead now left unpredictable pockets of almost any imaginable weather.

It was possible to go from a hurricane to the humid heat of a jungle in instants, or from that to raging torrents of water summoned from what remained of the immensely complicated plumbing that had once brought water to the inhabitants from the three rivers at the foot of the mountain and then drained their waste away.

As such, my parents had insisted that I should travel with companions.

Cathak Uzuki wasn’t known to me, although as one of the other great martial houses, it wasn’t a surprise that she intended to follow Cathak Cainan’s example and study at the Cloister. The other girl was Tepet Berel Ayama, who I had thought was contemplating a career with her family’s trading interests.

“I want to serve our House first,” she told me quietly on our first night climbing the mountain. We had made a camp in a hollow of the foothills and set up a tent. Uzuki was gathering more firewood as I prepared our meal. “And the Immaculate Order may be the best place. My brother feels I should test my commitment at the Cloister first.”

“Your brother?”

She shrugged. “My parents are more interested in the exchange of goods with Gem now that V’Neef is making gains in the firedust trade.”

Neither was Exalted, so I had to set my pace accordingly. If I was on my own, I would have left the trail and gone straight up, probably climbing even sheer slopes since there was a better chance of finding some area that hadn’t been looted already if I went somewhere hard to reach.

As it was, I’d needed to stay near to the trail and perhaps keep my exploring to night time hours. It left me catching up on my sleep at monasteries, which I explained as feeling more secure there and restless out on the mountain, close to the raw essence of the pole. Ayama and Uzuki had little choice but to believe me about that.

We were crossing the glass flats (by which I mean sheer sheets of glass, which were sharply angled, not what I’d call flat) when I called a halt early. “We’re higher than we’ve ever been so far,” I told them. “And you’re both trying to hide the fact that it’s tiring you more than you expected.”

“I can keep going,” insisted Uzuki but Ayama put her pack down.

“What do you suggest?” she asked me.

I nodded in gratitude for the support. “Let’s camp here overnight so you can acclimatize more. Once you’re both used to the thinner air here, it’ll be easier to press on and we’ll make up time tomorrow. Otherwise one of you might collapse and that’ll slow us down massively.”

Uzuki put her hands on her hips. “It’s said that the dragons reward persistence.”

“They also punish recklessness,” I reminded her. “I’ll be very glad if one of the dragons does bless you during this climb, but let’s try to use our heads.”

Then I produced my secret weapon. “I have cocoa from the south. This seems like a good occasion to break it out.”

Uzuki’s resistance crumbled at that – she had something of a sweet tooth.

Once we had set up camp, I mixed the cocoa with warm milk and let it work its magic. They really were both tired and I had to help a yawning Ayama into the tent or she might have walked into the poles and knocked it down. By the time she was bedded down, Uzuki had also yielded to the inevitable and she was crawling inside to rest.

I sat on the side of the Imperial Mountain and looked eastwards. The shadow cast by the mountain was covering Juche and there were too few torches and other lights there for me to pick it out. Further away, the Imperial River flowed down to the sea and I imagined that I could see the Imperial City enjoying a late afternoon. Probably not though, air distortion would likely make it hard.

The comparative difficulty my companions were having was another reminder of how different Exaltation made me. I could understand how easy it was for the Exalted to take up the rule of Creation and think nothing of heeding mortals. The sad fact was that they were not equals, something that had endlessly frustrated one of my friends in her efforts to set up a democracy.

“Poor Bright Wing,” I mused, with no one awake to hear me. “They’d nod and smile, then go back to worship their winged god-queen. It’s your own damn fault though. If you didn’t want them to worship you, you ought to have shut up.”

That would have been the day. Would be, rather. She wouldn’t exalt for a few years yet. Her exaltation was one of those entrapped in the Jade Prison that so many Solar Exaltations had been trapped in following the Usurpation.

I wasn’t sure exactly where that was, somewhere under the Inland Sea but that covered a vast area for it surrounded the Blessed Isle on three sides, hundreds of miles across. If I had known then I might have broken it now just so the Realm could start to adjust to the increase in the number of active Solars while the Scarlet Empress was still around to give some leadership.

“Hah.” I raised my hands and examined the bracers around my forearms. I’d spent essentially my every resource just making these. The sort of resources needed to reach something deep underwater would be orders of magnitude harder to find.

No, even if I had known where the Jade Prison was, I’d have no way to do anything about it.

I needed to get more resources. More tools, more options. Money wouldn’t hurt. My stipend was very generous by rational standards. After all, like any dynast, I could live in great luxury for very little effort. I might have my stipend cut if I was literally doing nothing to support the Realm or my House, but that wouldn’t be considered until I’d found my feet after completing my studies.

I stood, dusted off my hands and then the seat of my pants. I wasn’t going to try coming up the Imperial Mountain wearing just a tunic. It was far too cold.

Going to the sloping glass I started climbing up it, digging my fingers into it. Fortunately, there was a charm for basically this situation and I could see indentations where other Exalted had climbed this slope before. It was likely that anything at the top had been found already.

I had something else in mind though. Unlike those previous explorers - well, I assumed unlike them – I’d once seen a detailed map of Meru. If my memory was correct then this was what was left of Little Chiaroscuro, a cluster of glass towers in emulation of the famous towers of the great metropolis on the shores of the South.

Meru had included many districts like this, almost like extensions of the great cities of Creation and they had generally been linked to their parent cities by a Gate of Auspicious Passage, a huge and expensive artifact that allowed immediate passage between the two locations… as long as you didn’t mind the ruinous expense.

For the Celestial Exalted of the First Age, that expense had been more or less routine.

When I reached the point that more or less corresponded to where the gate should be, I secured myself with both feet and one hand, then drew back my fist.

Thump, thump, thump.

Eventually, the glass began to crack. I checked that I wasn’t right above the camp and then let the fragments fall down the slope and kept hitting it.

And yes, I was basically hitting the Imperial Mountain in the expectation that it would reward me with magical materials, artifacts or some other treasure.

Look, I don’t make the rules. I just know how Creation works and am willing to exploit those rules for my own benefit.

After a while the layer of glass broke open and I got to work widening the hole until I could get through it. There was basically zero chance of the Gate of Auspicious Passage still being functional but if it was there and just wrecked then it would be a fortune in magical materials. And if it wasn’t…?

Well, I still had the rest of the mountain to shake down.

In theory it took about a month to climb from the Steady Foundation Pagoda in Juche Prefecture to Victorious Ascendance of Mankind Temple, as near to the summit as mortals were permitted to go. We hadn’t been hurrying though, pausing to pray, meditate and study in the many temples along the way. As a result, it took us most of two seasons to reach the point.

Normally that was frowned upon as getting supplies up the mountain trails was a complex business but as we had voluntarily restricted ourselves to the simple diet of the monks (who fed themselves from the food they could grow around their stationed temples) it wasn’t too much of a strain.

Also, I was making a healthy donation from the funds House Tepet had provided from my pilgrimage to the temples each time we passed. Money talks, even for monks.

Unexpectedly, when we reached the gates of the temple, two monks were awaiting us there. Both were Exalted and both wore the robes of abbots in the Immaculate Order.

We slowed respectfully as we approached and the party of pilgrims we’d been walking with as we covered this last stretch reached the gate first. Each was welcomed politely by the abbots, awestruck at this reception. While there were other Dragon-Blooded monks on the mountain, there was immense spiritual weight borne by the duo… and one of them showed the tell-tale signs of his Earth-aspect so strongly that I had no doubt that he was not just old, or powerful, but both.

At least in this life, I could sense a level of essence mastery higher than anything I’d encountered. Unquestionably he was in the immortal courts, most likely the second of them. And I only doubted he was higher than that because I had made the transition to the third immortal court in my past life.

Nothing since my exaltation had made such an impression upon me. Just making the step into the third immortal court had taken years of study and preparation. I was fairly sure that the Scarlet Empress was the only Terrestrial Exalt who had both made that step and still been alive in this era. And in my past life, I had only been able to trace a definitive record of one other before her - an ancient veteran of the Primordial War whose peaceful ascetic lifestyle and extreme mastery of his essence had somehow allowed him to endure for over three millennia.

The Terrestrial Exalted were intended to be lesser than the Celestial Exalted. Just living long enough to reach such levels of power wasn’t something that we were expected to manage.

Our maker had failed to consider though, what the Exalted do to the notion of impossibility.

And for all the courtesy they showed the other pilgrims, it was clear that they were waiting for the three of us. I didn’t think I was being self-important to think that that was because of me.

“Welcome to the Virtuous Ascendance of Mankind,” the younger of the two abbots offered as we reached them. He reached out and took the hands of first Ayama and then Uzuki. “You have come a great distance to reach us. Please come inside and rest. We will talk of where your journey will take you from here.”

We all knew that he was not speaking of a physical journey.

The second abbot simply inclined his head to me. “Blissful Insight will see to the needs of your companions, child. I have been waiting for you.”

“I hope that my slow pace has not inconvenienced you,” I apologised.

He shook his head. “The mountain has told me of your purpose here. My name is Vaicha and I will be your guide from here.”

Ayama paused. “Honoured Abbot, we were charged with caring for Alina on this pilgrimage.”

The Exalted monk shook his head again to dismiss her words, clearly immovable on this point. “To here, yes. And on the return. But the route that we must follow is not one for mortals, however enlightened they may be. You may entrust her to me.”

Ayama still hesitated but I gestured for her to let it go. “If I am meant to follow Vaicha, then there is nothing either of us can do to change that Ayama. Our journeys diverge here but only briefly.”

“I expect it to take perhaps three weeks,” he offered. “You will be well cared for in her absence. There is much for you to learn.”

Then he turned and began to walk a narrow path away from the temple. Clearly, I was not expected to remain at this temple even for a moment. I shrugged to make sure that my pack was secure and then followed him towards the peak of the Imperial Mountain, and the very Pole of Earth itself.

Vaicha seemed to have little need to speak and we exchanged few words as we climbed, pausing only when I needed to rest. He seemed to have no real need of that, standing watch over me through these brief respites, seeming not to have moved at all during them.

I tried to keep them to a minimum, eating and drinking as we travelled and restocking the outer pockets of my pack at our brief rests. When we were about halfway, I had to dig deeper into my pack and he sighed slightly as I tried to bring the food out without revealing the case at the bottom.

“I am aware of what you found beneath the glass, Ivory Dragon. Do not concern yourself.”

Well now I just felt foolish. Or maybe just childish.

I hadn’t been able to find any starmetal. Someone had removed the entire gate somehow, perhaps before Little Chiaroscuro was melted into a pane of glass. I had my suspicions about who might have done that.

But I was just about as satisfied with what I had found. Somebody – very possibly the same people who had removed the gate – had left a case containing an almost complete set of tools for fine artifact repair and maintenance. Oh, none of the heavier stuff, but with this I could make such tools given the time and materials.

In essence, the case was a small workshop in a box. My previous incarnation had paid a fortune for a rather less complete set in Nexus, with the dealer telling me that in this day and age there were perhaps twelve such sets not owned by the Realm or the great city of Lookshy, the Realm’s one true military rival as far as most people were aware.

To be fair, if I’d found any significant amount of magical material, I wouldn’t have been able to take it with me, so short of something as rare as starmetal, this was as good a find as I was likely to get.

By the time we reached the temple just outside the peak, I was almost out of food. And I’d been eating as sparingly as I could manage.

Given the remote nature of the temple, there were only a tiny handful of monks resident here. Three were Dragon-Blooded and the fourth was… I decided not to investigate too closely what he was. He was making a very good job of masquerading as another Terrestrial Exalt and just speculating on it was giving me a headache that suggested significant supernatural forces were trying to impose acceptance of that on me.

So, I ignored him instead. I really hoped that I could break through onto the fourth essence plateau. If I had that much control then I knew a technique that would probably let me shrug that off but right now… particularly after a long and difficult trek along a path that it was hard to dignify by that term, I really didn’t have the energy.

The false-Dragon-Blood examined me, making it very hard to avoid paying attention to him. “This child is the pilgrim that you sought.”

“If not then he’s made a hell of a round trip for little return,” I shot back.

Vaicha shook his head. “Rest, eat.” He pushed me gently towards the temple’s interior.

I was inclined to take that instruction, despite the complaint of “Disrespectful child,” from a certain someone.

The abbot’s voice answered with quiet certainty. “The Unfallen Temple trembles with anticipation. Its one-time masters have returned to Creation, in numbers not seen in fifteen centuries. And you waste your anger on one tired child?”

I swallowed and staggered inside. I needed to sit down.

The Unfallen Temple was the highest – literally and figuratively – temple raised to the glory of the Unconquered Sun during the First Age. They had called it the Eternal Temple and it looked down on everything save for the absolute peak and the palace from which the Solar Deliberative had ruled Creation (which said a lot about how they saw their stature compared to their patron Incarna). In the First Age only the Solar Exalted worshipped there, led in the later years by the Hierophant of the Solar Deliberative, a man whose legendary piety had somehow brought peace to the Solar Exalted after centuries of warfare.

How Vaicha could be so aware of it as to know the status of its former master, I could only guess. But his words could only mean that the Jade Prison had been broken open. Solar Exaltations were returning to seek out new heroes to empower.

And as I knew from my foreknowledge, some of those Exaltations were in the hands of those who would manipulate them to seek out… those who were not quite heroes. And who might become deadly weapons aimed at Creation and those who claimed to rule it.

I slumped against a wall, shrugged out of my pack and curled up on the floor, thoughts chasing through my mind until, at last, I slept.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

The Abyssals were the creation of the DeathLords, who just inverted the Essence totally, Day to Night, Light to Dark.
I'm still not quite sure what the Yozi did to their share. The Infernals were too different.

Still, I'm interested in seeing what Vaicha knows, and why the TotallyNotAHidden Sidereal doesn't like Alina. Has she warped a thread or two?
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Descending Earth

I will not tell you of the rest of my visit to the Pole of Earth. To mediate upon that spot is one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences an Earth-aspected Terrestrial can manage. I do not think I could put it into words, even now.

I feel a great pity towards the other aspects, whose associated poles are so distant and so engulfed in the Wyld that to journey there makes my own pilgrimage seem little more than a walk through a well cultivated garden.

Suffice to say that when I descended to meet my companions, I had managed to enter the plateau that I sought and no longer got a painful headache just looking at the man who claimed to be called Righteous Granite.

It was just possible that he got a headache from my occasional knowing smile. I hope so. Viziers are so smug that giving them something to worry about besides their own schemes is practically a public service.

I didn’t really have to put up with him, or him with me though. A day after my visit to the summit, a second monk led me down the mountain on a second strenuous hike down to the Virtuous Ascendance of Mankind temple where I was reunited with Ayama and Uzuki.

By mutual assent, the three of us didn’t discuss the insights that we had received from our time here and we continued our pilgrimage by descending the long path at the same leisurely pace that we’d taken going up. As much as I would have liked to explore the northern and western faces of Meru, where the bulk of those ruins that had not cleared away by time or Immaculate Monks were found.

However, I’d done very well by finding the tools and I suspected Vaicha would know if I left the trail. What he might do, I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t inclined to argue with him.

In total we’d spent more than half a year on the mountain and rounded out the spring by hiking several hundred miles through the Dragon’s Nest mountain range, the comparatively modest mountains around the feet of the Imperial Mountain. We got as far as Portee, a decent sized town known for breeding small and annoying dogs (my description, not their advertising of the breed) where there was a convenient coach house.

From here, Uzuki parted ways to go south to her family while Ayama and I took a coach up to Lord’s Crossing. It was somewhat ironic that given all the travel I’d done too and from Juche, this was the first time I’d travelled more than a day by coach.

I think I would have preferred to walk.

I arrived in time for the final examinations and the entrance examinations for various secondary schools. Contrary to popular belief, there are more than just four schools for students older than fourteen. The others are simply private institutions rather than being sponsored by the imperial government or the Immaculate Order, sometimes with a focus on subjects that aren’t considered quite as critical to the Realm’s security as sorcery, military science, martial arts or administration.

(Look, I don’t enjoy administration, but without the Thousand Scales managing the Realm’s government the entire Blessed Isle would be a feudal morass like some parts of the Threshold. Yes, it’s a tyrannical autocracy but at least it’s a competently run tyrannical autocracy.)

No one was waiting for me at the entrance to Root and Reed School, but I would have been surprised. I waved Ayama off and then entered into the main building to let the school’s staff know I was back.

That obligation taken care of, I returned to the familiar environs of the Exalted dorm, only to find that someone else was using my room.

Somewhat put out by this – I admit it was foolish to think it would stay reserved for me when I was just here for a few days - I set my pack down in the corner and put off checking for a room that wasn’t taken yet. There were always some, Exalted were few and far between, but the school would hardly want to be unable to accommodate us. I put my feet up on a couch and dozed.

“Who…?” someone wondered out loud and I cracked my eyes open, realising I’d napped most of the afternoon. “Alina!”

I had to blink a few times to adjust my eyes. “Oh, hello Emari. How are you?”

To my surprise she half lifted me from the couch in a hug. “How am I? I didn’t know what had happened to you. You just didn’t arrive for this year and the teachers just said your parents had other plans for you.” She almost sniffled. “Lyta was telling everyone that you’d been sent to the Palace of the Tamed Storm.”

I laughed and petted her still short hair. “Nothing like that. Goodness, I’d be hard pressed to have earned that without you noticing it. I was on a pilgrimage. I don’t know why the teachers wouldn’t have told you that. I would have sent a letter but it was arranged in something of a hurry.” A thought struck me. “Mela! Lyta hasn’t exalted, has she?” If that was who was using my bed then I’d throw her out of the window.

And then find another bed, because using a room that she’d slept in… ugh.

Emari crouched back on her haunches. “What? No. I think that that’s making her more poisonous than ever though.”

“It would.”

She reached up and brushed my own hair – or rather the stubble that had grown back over the last two months - with her hand. “What happened to this? I almost didn’t recognise you without your hair.”

“I shaved it off for the pilgrimage,” I explained. “I was living under the rules of an Immaculate monk while I scaled the Imperial Mountain. I’ll have to get used to it, since I’ll be under most of the rules of a monk of the First Coil as long as I’m a student at the Cloister of Wisdom.”

Getting to my feet, I looked myself over. “I’d better bathe before dinner. Hopefully no one will mind me attending in a pilgrim’s robe, I didn’t bring my uniforms.”

No one, it seemed, minded. In fact, I was something of a minor celebrity among this year’s new students, with older students bringing their relatives over to introduce them. For most, however, the coming examinations were of greater interest.

Emari, Udano and Erika fell back into our accustomed study group but we did so with a degree of melancholy for this would probably be the last time we could gather like this. Emari was applying to a smaller private school, one that had featured heavily in Nalan’s last letter about his own future plans.

I’d made a point of mentioning them to each other – not in a matchmaking sense but it would make me feel better if Emari had someone to look out for her. And while I hadn’t crossed paths with Nalan much over the last few years, I wouldn’t mind another pair of eyes on him. He had been my best ally in the nursery after all.

All too soon, exams came and went. I had to get permission to rush into Lord’s Crossing to get a uniform for the graduation ceremony. It seemed a terrible waste, but apparently the teachers had thought I was wandering around in a monk’s robes as some sort of statement and by that point getting my last uniform sent from Juche was impractical. It might not have fit anyway; I’d been growing like a weed and was anticipating hitting five feet over the summer if that kept up. Even my shoulders probably wouldn’t have fit inside an old uniform jacket if I’d tried.

Tepet Jita surprised me by attending the graduation – fortunately, Tepet Vergus did not or we might have had a sizeable audience to the two Tepet elders jabbing at each other. Or perhaps they could behave in public.

Slightly less welcome was Tepet Serakan, accompanying a young man wearing the V’Neef mon on his cloak.

“Alina, darling. I wanted to introduce you to Aviselu,” she warned me as he approached. I took it as a warning, anyway.

I gave him a second look between an exchange of formal bows. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, and I guessed him Exalted though he wore no visible artifacts, for there were simply so few V’Neef that any member of the house his age would have to be an Exalt.

Granted, I could not guess his age other than somewhere upwards of twenty. He could as easily have been headed into his third century by his looks. Although more than seventy or so would be unlikely given the date of V’Neef’s founding as a Great House.

“My congratulations,” he offered. “To be offered entrance into the Cloister of Wisdom a year early is a remarkable achievement.” His eyes flicked to my bracers, which I had cinched around the sleeves of my jacket. “Are those a gift? I don’t recognise the style.”

I shook my head. “My own work.”

Aviselu paused and Serakan laughed to cover the moment. “Your talents never cease to amaze me, Alina. Are you sure that you shouldn’t be going to one of the schools aiming for crafting? My daughter said your essence was sufficient that you could have applied to the Heptagram.”

“I have philosophical concerns about some of their policies,” I answered politely.

She would likely guess that I meant the fact that I’d owe a favour to the throne. That was the official repayment of the costs borne by the Scarlet Empress of educating every sorcerer to attend the academy. I could have lived with that - probably - but I was more concerned that once the Scarlet Empress vanished, those favours were called in by the Deliberative… and usually in ways calculated to kill off rival House’s most promising sorcerers.

Otherwise the Heptagram has much to recommend itself. They are also smart enough to ban Mnemon from setting foot on their private island after she was the sole survivor of Versino, the predecessor to the Heptagram. The truth of her part in its destruction was a state secret that would get me killed if anyone learned I was aware of it. Probably after excruciating torture to find out how I knew it, given the Scarlet Empress had debriefed her daughter privately afterwards. The only other witness, after all, was the Demon of the Second Circle that had been unleashed in that catastrophe.

“I am deeply envious,” Aviselu confessed. “My own talents lean more towards seafaring. It may seem odd to one of my aspect, but the waves have always called to me. But while I have done well in trade, I have yet to have the chance to obtain a weapon of jadesteel. And to have made one in the time that you’ve been a student here…” His lips quirked up. “Do you, by any chance, take commissions?”

I matched that smile. “I’m not opposed, but I may have limited opportunities for such work until I graduate from the Cloister.”

He made a dismissive gesture. “There is time. I imagine I would need to amass the wealth and materials for such a commission. That will be the work of years.”

We spoke further of his visits to sea ports in the south-west before the dinner was announced and Aviselu excused himself to clean up.

“I believe you’ve made a good impression,” Serakan assured me. “The prospect of you crafting not only an artifact for him but for profit in the future is a superb way to ensure he meets with you again. If only Elana was so adroit.”

I shrugged. I had been unsure at first if the matron was working on my mother’s behalf or trying to brag of a connection to persuade the V’Neef to consider a marriage to Elana. She had escaped across the Inland Sea on an investigation, as last I heard. It seemed that it was the former possibility.

“What do you make of him?” the woman asked me in a low voice. “He’s got a good career and the right connections, but if you have strong sentiments against him specifically… well, I know that romance is not the key to a good marriage, but a strong dislike is a genuine issue. If you find him repellent then I think V’Neef is sufficiently interested to simply present another candidate.”

The prospect was worthy of consideration.

What did I think about him? The prospect of being married was suddenly and viscerally real. Fifteen, twenty years? For an exalt that was no great time at all. Barring injury, most Dragon-Blooded lived two or three centuries. Her Scarlet Majesty was at least eight hundred years old – if you didn’t know her exact age, you were well advised not to ask.

“I… don’t object to him?” I half-asked, half-concluded.

Serakan patted my shoulder sympathetically. “Perhaps we should wait until you’re a few years older. You’re such a swift developer in some ways that it wouldn’t really be a surprise if it took you a little longer than most in this one. And you have plenty of time.”

That wasn’t implausible, I conceded. I could think of other reasons, neither of which necessarily ruled out marriage.

The initiation into sorcery involves sacrifice. Not of others, as some lurid tales claim, but of one’s self. Something prized must be given up. And I, who had sired a host of Dragon-Blooded heroes without ever settling down to turn them into a family, had chosen to give up the ability to ever do so. I could care for my children, as I did in my way. But I would never love those who gave me children, or at least, not in a romantic sense.

Was that sacrifice something that carried over to this life, even if the sorcery I had purchased with it was no longer within my reach? Had I scarred my soul for all time?

It was far too soon to panic over that, I thought that there was another possibility that might be simpler and more likely.

Perhaps it was just that Aviselu was a man.

“Who was that?” asked Emari as I joined the other graduates for dinner. “The man in green.”

I shrugged helplessly. “My parents have him in mind as my husband.”

Emari looked at me, then glanced to where Aviselu had just re-entered the room, moving to sit with the other distinguished guests. “I’m jealous,” she said lightly.

The Cloister of Wisdom lay on the east coast of the Blessed Isle, near the city of Sion and the Palace Sublime, the headquarters of the entire Immaculate Order. The city was a noted source of fine cloth but I would have little use for that over the next few years – seven, probably. That was the maximum time a student could remain at the Cloister. After that, I would be allowed to return only if I attained sufficient eminence to be invited to teach there.

I didn’t anticipate that I would be doing that.

There was no wall around the school. Like the Palace Sublime, it was considered sacrosanct. And more to the point, inhabited by some of the finest martial artists in all Creation. The coach carrying Ayama and I halted at the mouth of a valley that led down to the sea. I knew from my reading that the hills on either side ended abruptly in high chalk cliffs.

Ayama rubbed her eyes. “I hadn’t expected it to be beautiful.”

I looked at the gardens and nodded quietly. They were in a classical style rather than the lusher style of the east, austere but clearly carefully tended. The closest thing there was to a border was a stream that flowed across the mouth of the valley before it followed the edge of one slope down towards the glittering sea.

I had not seen the sea once in thirteen years. It was not quite an emotional event.

A small footbridge crossed the stream, although I could have jumped the water easily enough. An arch depicting the five Elemental Dragons rose up on this side and I gave the depiction of Urwl a crooked smile. Had it been specifically portrayed to resemble Pasiap or had the images of Pasiap deliberately been crafted to resemble the first Earth elemental to begin with?

Before we crossed the bridge, Ayama and I used salt water from a stone basin beside it to cleanse ourselves ritually. Wearing only sandals and hemp robes – all else would be provided or was unnecessary – we entered the Cloister. My bracers were allowed for lessons where they would be useful, but they had been sent ahead and would be left in the care of the teaching staff except for those lessons.

At most the Cloister had space for only one hundred and twenty-five students. It was a rare year that they accepted as many as twenty new applicants. Sifu Voish had been overcome with pride that three of his students would be accepted in the same year.

Yes, three.

I saw a familiar face made alien by the shaving of her long brown hair, among those students who had already arrived. There were a few robes of linen among those observing the new arrivals, but most wore the same hemp, suggesting they were junior monks or perhaps older students. Or, naturally, they could be both.

Sesus Lyta and I exchanged no words as we waited in the sun for the last arrivals. Little was said in fact, the serenity of the valley overcoming even the Dragon-Blooded among the adolescents – about half the total I guessed. A handful tried to sit or stretch but just a reproving look from the monks had them chastised.

I folded my arms behind my back and half-closed my eyes, bringing my breathing under control. One did not need to be in the lotus position to meditate. Beside me, Ayama did likewise.

My eyes snapped open a moment before one of the monks spoke up. She had seemed unremarkable at first glance, but her robe and belt were linen, the latter dyed undyed despite her evident Air-aspect. When she spoke, all those present snapped to attention.

“Welcome to the Cloister of Wisdom. We have not invited you here to receive that wisdom, like water poured into a waiting bowl. It is the way of our academy that you shall instead join us in seeking wisdom.”

“As those who have gone before you, guidance will be provided at first. Through your first year, instruction will be provided in the core of our training: meditation, martial arts and the mastery of your spirit. For those of you who have exalted, the latter will include lessons to prepare you to begin to study the Immaculate arts.” She smiled serenely. “You will also learn the skills to help support our community. Some of you may find this harder than others.”

“There are no servants here, only students and masters. Some students have the duty of passing on lessons and we call these students masters. Your own duties may seem more onerous, but this too is an illusion of the outside world. Many of us would consider our burdens greatly lessened were we only to cook, clean or garden as you will.”

“The lessons available from our masters cover many fields. We will make it known when they will provide instruction and it is for you to approach them and request the right to heed the wisdom they will share. As a rule, you will have too much to learn and unlearn during your first year of study. A master will only permit you to become their student when they judge you ready. Humility and hard work in your first year will be a good beginning in earning this privilege.”

Her gaze hardened. “Some of you will study with more masters and others with fewer. Those in the latter category will be lauded for their willingness to take on other chores to support our community since they will have more time to do so. Those who neglect their duties to the Cloister in search of other lessons will not find that they have earned the approval of the masters and may find themselves dismissed by existing masters for their hubris.”

“Those who do not heed their lessons have stepped aside from the path of wisdom. It is with regret that masters will turn these shirkers aside. With far deeper regret, it may be my duty to ask an incorrigible offender to leave our community. It is for you to find the balance between these extremes, but you may find guides towards that wisdom amongst your elders.”

The woman fell silent and older students moved gracefully towards us, wordlessly picking out individuals to guide away. I found myself led by a young man towards a hall surrounded by potted plants that I recognised had been imported from the eastern Threshold.

“Each of the Young Dragon Halls honours one of the Immaculate Dragons,” he announced as other student pairs – each made up of one new arrival and one experienced member I guessed. All the new students were girls. “You’ve been chosen to live together in the Hall of Sextes Jylis for your first year.”

Unfortunately, Lyta was amongst those with us. She raised her hand as if in class. “Wouldn’t it make sense for an Earth-aspect to be in the Hall of Pasiap?” she asked innocently. “Wasn’t there room for Alina?”

I was going to have to bunk with her, wasn’t I? I knew I’d suffer trials here, but this was worse than I’d envisaged.

“For your first year,” the older student repeated himself with just the slightest emphasis. “Every year the students rooming together are changed to prevent the existence of cliques and broaden our connections. Most of you will find yourselves rooming in each of the Halls at least once.”

He pushed open the wooden door to the hall almost without breaking stride and led us through a passageway through into a meditation garden in the centre. Around us, rooms were built upon each other in an irregular fashion, few of them even sharing a floor with those on either side of them. Stairs threaded through that chaotic and yet harmonious arrangement, providing access to rooms above (sometimes well above) ground level.

“Your chore during the first year will be to tend to this garden and to the rooms around it,” he instructed us. “My name is Distant Wave and I shall instruct you in these tasks.”

“What times should we be doing that?” asked a girl with the slightly harder edge of an accent to her High Realm that marked her as coming from the Imperial City or at least somewhere near it.

Distant Wave shook his head. “Classes for the first year take place in the morning, following breakfast. The rest of the day is yours to practise what you have been taught and carry out your chores.” He smiled without any fondness. “Be aware that as your elders we care for the wellbeing of the rest of the Cloister. If we find that we must also care for shortfalls in your much lighter obligations, we will express our displeasure.”

Most of the classes were the same whether you were Exalted or mortal. If someone were to calculate class rankings then the top slots would probably be dominated by the Exalted but the teachers and their assistants from the older students were careful only to grade us in comparison to ourselves.

The point was for us to be the most enlightened each of us could be, there were no points for being ‘more enlightened’ than the person next to you, assuming that that was even measurable.

Other than the Dragon-Blooded vs mortals divide but that was just assumed and rarely spoken of.

Mind you, if Cynis Verdant Road was more enlightened than Ayama at this point, I was a llama. I’m fairly sure that he and his cousin Salan had found a hidden corner to go do something prohibited, judging by their smug and satiated smiles some mornings.

If someone caught them, then they’d be exploring an entirely different back passage. The occasional slip was tolerated since we were just students (if I came across a bacon sandwich somewhere, I would own up to my offense only after I’d devoured it) but premeditated and repetitive offenses were another matter.

Verdant Road was only on my mind because he’d stepped in to partner me during one of the few classes where we were segregated from our mortal brethren.

“Did you follow that?” he asked as Master Crane finished lecturing us on the balance of essence flows between the two charms he was trying to teach us. Crane looked younger than Radiant Granite, but I was fairly sure he was older or at least more experienced since I could almost believe that he was simply an itinerant Dragon-Blood who had been recruited into the Immaculate Order after he exalted in the south-western swamps.

Almost.

I tried to let my awareness that the young-looking man was probably one of the Five-Score Fellowship not surface, since they’d gone to quite a bit of trouble over the last millennium and a half to not only hide their presence but the fact that they even existed.

Having an entire order of monks to throw at rival celestial Exalted might not work so well if the rank-and-file knew that you were also a celestial exalt, after all.

“Yes,” I answered the green-haired boy. “Pasiap’s Humility allows us to see the dematerialized, but at the expense of clouding our perceptions of the mundane world. But by living in the Moment of Daana’d we straddle the line between the natural and the supernatural, and thus not only can we understand what we are seeing on both sides of that line, we can also touch both at will.”

“Bravo,” murmured Crane, who had closed in on us as we talked. “I see that you have a good grasp of the theory, Alina. Would you feel ready to attempt the charms?”

I considered a moment and then nodded. I knew both these charms and some more archaic forms, having at first received this initiation via techniques that the Celestial Exalted of the First Age had taught their Dragon-Blooded lieutenants. The Immaculate versions I’d learned later and with a considerably better grounding in the principles.

Crane gestured for the other students to back off and give me room. “Then if you would be so good as to begin with humility.”

Inclining my head once more in acknowledgement of the warning I shaped the essence flows through myself.

My vision of the classroom around me blurred as I saw the least spirits of the walls, floor and furniture around us replace the items themselves. Crane and the other Exalted seemed to explode into their anima banners, masking their presence and actual postures behind light and quiescent power.

“Very good,” I heard Crane affirm as if from some distance.

I heard a rustle of movement and snapped around, reflectively channelling my essence to intercept the projectile heading for my face.

The classroom came back into definition as my finger caught not only the spit wad but also the snarling and drenched paper-spirit of the ‘weapon’ and flicked them back to the point of origin.

“Ow!” Verdant Road caught it as it rebounded off his forehead and tossed it onto his desk. Littering would probably get him a good kicking next time he sparred with whoever cleaned this study chamber. “That’s bullshit!”

“No.” Crane examined me, watching how my eyes tracked the movement of his finger as he moved it before my face. “This is the synthesis of the two enlightening charms I have been trying to teach you.”

“She’s a year and a bit younger than I am. Why did she get it first?”

“I really couldn’t say,” the teacher declared. “It’s almost as if one of you was strictly following the strictures of the first coil, as all of you ought to, and the other was indulging themselves at the expense of their spiritual advancement.” He shook his head as he moved back. “What a mystery. Do end the charm, Alina. Maintaining the two charms can be draining until you have sufficient practise to keep your essence stable.”

I didn’t expect that to be a problem, but nor would I expect the masters to accept that without demonstration. I released the charm and saw the dematerialized world fade from my awareness. “What would constitute sufficient practise, Master?”

The young-looking teacher chewed on his lip thoughtful. “Five full seasons is the usual minimum before a master would consider beginning to teach you to use Immaculate charms. And I do mean minimum. The consequences of even an apparently slight error can be deadly.”

“So not until you’re as old as I am,” Verdant Road declared heartily and slapped me on the shoulder as if the previous byplay hadn’t happened.

“Or perhaps older,” Crane amended himself. “While your talent is considerable, Alina, teaching you before you’re fifteen may be considered rash. Needless to say, if you were to seek instruction until we are quite sure you are ready, the Masters will have to reconsider if you are sufficiently mature for other lessons besides that.”

“Never mind, Alina.” Verdant Road took a half-step away, out of retaliation range. “Perhaps we can be the ones who give you pointers.”

“Only if you are able to master these charms yourself.” Our teacher gave the Fire-aspect a stern look. “Not to mention, I imagine Alina will seek instruction in her native element and you in yours. Cross-training would require each of you to master your native styles, something that generally takes more than merely the span of time you will be studying here.”

I was cleaning the floor of the training chamber of the Hall of Sextes Jylis when Crane entered the room. The repetitive scrubbing was meditative in its own way and I was practising Pasiap’s Humility, seeking to balance its distractions through more mundane charms to bolster my awareness. Such tricks come comparatively naturally to those of my aspect, but even so, I didn’t notice the master until his shadow crossed my vision.

Which suggested that I hadn’t mastered this yet.

Crane closed the door behind him, indicating to the rest of the hall that the room was in use. Private instruction of this kind wasn’t unusual, but interrupting someone working at their chores was.

“I’ve heard complaints that this room wasn’t been maintained properly,” he mused, looking around.

I didn’t look up. “Perhaps that is why I was asked to take care of it rather than taking another turn at weeding.”

“Yes, I would not expect you to show less than due diligence.” He stretched lightly and walked onto the half of the floor that I hadn’t worked on yet. Despite walking across the still drying wooden planks I’d scrubbed; he left no damp footprints on the drier wood. “Join me for a moment.”

I draped the rags I was using on the side of the bucket and rose, letting my knees adjust. I must have been getting soft for less than an hour of basically crawling around to make them ache like this.

Crane let me recover myself and join him. My own footprints were clearly visible, I noted. “I am aware that you may find it frustrating that you are being held back from studying the Immaculate arts at this time,” he began. “That is quite normal, but it may be more so for you as your age makes us sufficiently cautious that you may not be instructed until some of your less adept peers have caught up with you.”

“I understand that there are two particular reasons for this decision,” I told him frankly. “I would agree that it is frustrating, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t make the same decision.”

“Two reasons?” He looked at me quizzically.

“Firstly, to some degree it would be easier to have students begin training at the same time.”

“A fairly trivial concern given the small number of students we teach at any given time,” he agreed. “One we would set aside however, were it not for the very real possibility that you might permanently cripple yourself if you moved ahead too fast.”

I let the corner of my mouth arc up. “Yes, I would prefer not to endure that.”

Crane folded his arms and examined me, then nodded in approval. “I hope that you are never in the position of seeing one of the Chosen for overreaching themselves in that fashion.”

Too late for that, given my past life. The memory was vivid despite the decades since and several other, quite memorable events that day. Granted, it hadn’t been the Immaculate arts that killed him, but the image of a Dragon-Blooded perfectly executing one of the charms of the highest martial arts, the bulb of the lotus, only to explode violently an instant later as his essence rebelled…

What a tragic, pointless waste it had been.

And yet, he himself might have disagreed with that assessment. After all, he had succeeded, if only for an instant.

Crane reached over and almost patted me paternally on the head. “Your patience is noted,” he said after I drew back slightly. “I promise that as soon as you are ready, we will begin your instruction. You might not realise it but your early entry has drawn considerable attention. No less a personage than Ragara Myrrun has suggested that he might be willing to complete your training in the Earth Dragon style if you have not mastered the style by your graduation from the Cloister.”

I started at the name, glad that the sheer distinction of it would cover for the uncomfortable match to my thoughts. Myrrun was precisely the man whose death I had just been remembering. “The grand master himself?”

He nodded politely, forbearing to mention that there were two other bearers of that title at this time. Likely no one else would have disagreed – Myrrun had mastered the Earth Dragon style by his graduation from the Cloister, one of the youngest ever, only to move on and study each of the other styles in turn.

He was still the only Dragon-Blooded master to have learned all five Immaculate arts in less than two hundred years. Such an offer was all but unprecedented. A grand master might offer to bring along a promising master seeking to learn a second or third style, but to offer someone who was barely even at the beginning of their path…

“What have I done to receive such attention?”

Crane smiled slightly. “Just between the two of us, how many martial arts have you mastered?”

“None.” Which was the truth. I hadn’t fully mastered any style since my rebirth. And I was getting close to having learned all I really felt I needed to of the terrestrial martial arts that I had known previously. I would continue to push at them but it didn’t feel like as much of a priority now that I had learned some of their more potent charms.

Instead, I had been spending most of my private practise time melding the disparate styles into something resembling my techniques from my past life, tearing the arts down and rebuilding them into a coherent shared personal style.

It was just a pity that I dared show no one, much less put them into practise against a sparring opponent. In the chaos of battle, it would pass without notice, for anything less serious… it would be socially disgracing and perhaps lead to reprimands and attention I would prefer to avoid.

The vizier gave me a knowing look. “And how many have you studied?”

I hesitated. “Counting the initiation charms you have taught me as separate from the Immaculate arts… four.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Terrestrial Hero style and Five Dragon style. Our enlightening charms and the theory of Earth Dragon style…” And then he leaned closer. “I do not believe that is all that you have studied, Alina. Now…”

I considered stonewalling him, but he wasn’t just fishing. A celestial martial artist skilled enough to pass for an Immaculate might well be able to read into my stance and see the imprint of my practise. No, I needed a deflection… and it would be best not to actively lie.

“I have found no manuals for them,” I allowed carefully, “And I suppose I would not expect to. But I have read something of the Golden Janissary style and a substyle of some larger art that is, I believe, referred to as the Central Noble Honour Blade.” The latter was the ‘central’ school of Crimson Pentacle Blade style. And it was absolutely true that I had never seen a written manual to either style… in this life.

Crane studied me searchingly and then relaxed. “I see. Both styles that employ the spear and thus sometimes seen as complementary to the Five Dragon Style. Inferior to the Immaculate Arts but not without their uses to those who do not have access to them.”

“Since I at times lacked the physical rigor for active practise, I wished to explore the theoretical underpinnings of the martial arts.”

He waved aside the excuse. “In truth, our need to enforce proper doctrine may unavoidably mean that we are unable to fully explore the potential benefits of a broader base of training. If nothing else, an ignorance of prohibited styles will not protect you from them if you encounter a practitioner. You are wise to keep your exploration of them quiet however. What will be excusable once you are an Immaculate master is less so in a student.”

I bowed my head.

“I believe you have the makings of a master,” he continued slowly. “Perhaps… just perhaps… of a grand master. It would require great commitment on your part, you understand.”

“I know just enough to realise how little I understand the challenges of such a path.”

Crane laughed lightly. “You have found some wisdom here, already. It is probable that if you were to become Ragara Myrrun’s apprentice that you would be expected to formally join the Order, if only at the first coil.”

I really couldn’t be bothered doing that, but I was curious as to where he was going. “I couldn’t make such a commitment without a great deal of thought and consulting with my elders.”

“Naturally, I’m merely speaking of the future.”

He rubbed his hands together. “I have been extending some lessons to younger students who need a little counsel. Would it help to vent some of your frustrations with some additional lessons?”

There was really only one acceptable answer. “If you believe I am ready then I would be honoured.”

He nodded. “There are some less well-known techniques used by the Water-aspected that build upon the charms of Terrestrial Hero style to include a harder portfolio of manoeuvres. They would come a little less naturally to you; but I can perhaps bring you up to proficiency with them. Shall we say every other evening?”

Terrestrial Hero style was predominantly a soft style, with a focus on clinches and other close quarters moves. I was somewhat aware that other Terrestrial Exalted had built upon it but their actual use would be new to me in either life. “I would be honoured, Master Crane.”

And maybe I’ll figure out what you’re actually up to.

I knelt in one of the cells and meditated.

I wasn’t a prisoner; it wasn’t that sort of cell. I could leave any time I wanted. It was just a small room where you could meditate without distractions. In theory I could have slept here, but school regulations required that I use the shared dorm room rather than avoiding the rest of the community.

Lyta and I had agreed on one thing without ever speaking about it – the mats we slept on were as far apart as the room allowed. The one person who thought it would be funny to switch our mats for each other’s, thought it was a lot less funny when they wound up in sparring matches with at least one of us for every day for the next week.

I was close to breaking through. I could almost feel the barrier separating me from the final mortal plateau, the greatest level of essence control attainable for an Exalt less than a hundred years old or without certain other… options.

I didn’t expect to receive those opportunities now. I’d initially made the leap through the direct and personal intervention by one of the Celestial Incarnae while fighting an actual invasion of Yu Shan. Generosity that had only been merited by the dire situation.

All things considered; I would prefer to prevent that particular crisis even if it meant not receiving a literal divine intervention.

The exploit I’d discovered after that was that I could essentially cheat Creation’s expectation of a certain degree of age and, hmm… entrenchment within the Loom of Fate before an Exalt could enter the immortal courts of essence manipulation. Unfortunately, the method involved having a dynasty of Exalted descendants to essentially claim their fate as your own in that regard.

There were some slight technical barriers to having six or seven hundred children in the near future. I mean, it wasn’t impossible, but given that it’s not really recommended for a Dragon-Blooded woman to give birth more than every five years or so…

Don’t look at me like that, I’m a licensed physician. Or I was. Or would be. I’d invent proper tenses to deal with this, but then people would wonder why I needed them.

I let that little chain of thought die off, having distracted myself once again from the breakthrough. There was something holding me back, I felt. Something unresolved in my heart that I must address if I was to progress past my current limits.

I had the unfortunate suspicion that it might be Lyta.

I’d known her almost half my life now and since one of us had to be the mature adult, I didn’t really hate her. Even if she had almost all Hunt’s worst characteristics. Unfortunately, the reverse was not true.

It was sad but understandable that dynastic children who didn’t exalt would bear the weight of their family’s disappointment in them. Lyta had been raised in the expectation that she would become a Terrestrial Exalt, like her parents and, if I recalled correctly, her older brother. Now that she was fifteen, she was more than halfway through the years when she could reasonably expect to. And those who exalted late were generally felt to possess weaker exaltations or thinner blood.

It was still a huge step up from being a mortal, but there were degrees of respect even among the Exalted.

A patrician might have weathered the disappointment, since however much they might hope for exaltation, realistically they knew that the odds weren’t in their favour. But Lyta wasn’t a patrician, and it was eating her up inside.

She was a Sesus, and while they didn’t have quite the high rate of exaltation of Mnemon, Cathak or V’Neef, her house still bore the blood of the Scarlet Empress herself and were among the most rigid in the largely forgotten tradition of Terrestrial Exalted only wedding their fellow Exalted.

And rather than her exalting, early and strongly, who had?

The bastard offspring of a mortal and a fairly junior household in House Tepet, who were admittedly of somewhat less fruitful lineage than her own family. (I doubt it would have assuaged her envy to know that my actual father, Ragara Nova, was probably also a descendent of the Scarlet Empress. I hadn’t checked into his exact lineage, but Ragara was the oldest surviving child of the Empress and her husband Rawar so odds were good that Nova was descended from the old man).

And thus, she hated me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Terrestrial Exalted around her.

For now, it was banked up and of little immediate danger, but with the Jade Prison open and her right here, everything was lining up with the story I had heard years ago. Of a Solar mad with zealotry and a deep-rooted hatred of the Terrestrial Exalted both from her own life and from the memories she inherited from a past bearer of exaltation who had died in the Usurpation.

That Solar had exalted in this exact area… different versions had proliferated but I was fairly sure by the accounts that it was either in the Palace Sublime or right here in the Cloister of Wisdom. It was entirely possible that some of those recounting the story hadn’t known the difference.

Lyta was, I had to admit, genuinely talented. Combine that with the power of a Solar Exaltation and I could reluctantly believe that she might be able to fight her way out. And I doubted that many in her path would survive.

With a sigh I rose from where I was sat. I wasn’t going to resolve this tonight and from the angle of the sun, I should go for dinner. I had chores, even if today wasn’t one of the evenings that Master Crane was training me.

Distant Wave intercepted me as I walked the path between the Cloister Temple where I had been meditating and the Hall of Masters, the building that housed – among other things – the dining hall. “Alina.” He offered me a scroll. “A letter arrived for you.”

“Oh?” I accepted it and checked the seal on it. The mon stamped into it was a variant on the Tepet Demarol seal, but not one that I had seen before. Not that I’d seen all of them, admittedly.

Cracking the seal, I unrolled it and scanned the content.

A hand fell on my shoulder a moment later and I paused, realising that I’d been about to walk into a wall. “An engrossing letter?” the older student asked, grinning at my mistake.

The grin faded as I turned to him. “After a fashion. My… Doreg is my nephew, but a year or so my elder. He’s enlisted in the legions.”

Distant Wave nodded. “He’s just turned fifteen then?” It was the minimum age that the Legions accepted for recruits.

“Yes.” The last I’d heard – from Nalan – was that Doreg had been granted permission to live in Lord’s Crossing for a year before he committed to a secondary school. Sometimes that was a polite cover-up for not passing any of the entrance exams, but to give the elder of the twins credit, he was probably smart enough to have got into any school he wanted. I could only assume that he’d been planning this the entire time.

“Well, that’s not unusual for your House.”

“No,” I agreed. “But he’ll be training as they march. The Eighth Legion is marching to the Caracal River where they’ll ship out for Greyfalls. He’s going right into a war.”

A war? Hah. The war. The war that broke House Tepet’s legions.

Icole would likely be going as well, he was with the Forty-Third, another of the legions that recruited heavily from the Lord’s Crossing Dominion, drew its auxiliary forces largely from Tepet satrapies… and whose officers were drawn almost exclusively from House Tepet’s mortal and Exalted members.

The numbers that I’d not been able to forget since my first meeting with Icole, while I was still sleeping in a barred cot, came back to me.

Nine-tenths of the Tepet Legions died fighting the Bull of the North. Even among the Exalted. And both Doreg and Icole were mortals.

A letter from Icole arrived a few days later, confirming what I’d already expected. He was on his way east.

Tepet Berel Ayama approached me at breakfast the next day. “A moment of your time, please?”

I looked up and nodded. We had a little time before our first class and took a short diversion down to the stream flowing through the Cloister. There were several ponds that it fed, some of them used for the training of those being taught Water Dragon style, but she led me to one of the small bridges that went across it.

“What do you know about the Haltans that worries you so?” she asked bluntly.

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I guess I’d been a bit too obvious in my worrying. “It’s not the Haltans, it’s their allies. The Linowan have been fighting the Haltans for centuries and they wouldn’t usually ask us to get involved. If they need help it’s because there’s something new in play.” I hesitated. “And then there’s who is being sent.”

“The Tepet Legions?”

I nodded. “They’re Imperial Legions, but there’s no denying that they may look more towards House Tepet than to the Realm as a whole.”

Ayama shook her head, “That’s not unique to us.”

“Most Great Houses patronise one or two legions,” I agreed. “But only the Cathak and Sesus dominate as many as our house, and neither of those houses hold a Dominion. The reason the Scarlet Empress hasn’t granted any other Houses the right to rule a prefecture privately as we and the Ledaal may not be just that we’ve maneuvered to keep our rivals from obtaining similar power. It’s possible she sees it as a mistake. And it’s not one she can readily undo.”

The other girl leant against the rail facing me, head cocked in thought. “The Ledaal?”

“They aren’t a military powerhouse. But right now, House Tepet could potentially have more military and economic power than the other Houses. It’s not unprecedented for a House to rebel, or even to just flex its muscle in ways that Her Scarlet Majesty isn’t quite unhappy enough to unleash the Imperial Manse upon them.”

Ayama didn’t ask me if I was being paranoid. We were both dynasts. The only question was: were we being paranoid enough?

“I don’t think she wants us destroyed. But a long campaign in a distant land where our legions are not only far from home but can be ground down – and perhaps even one or two of them disbanded or rebuilt with officers and soldiers not tied to us?” I shrugged. “For that matter, it might not be a specific military policy. Mnemon is pretty close with House Cynis and House Sesus. None of them are incredibly fond of us and that’s a big slice of the Deliberative.”

The Deliberative was… an interesting commentary on how the Realm functioned. The upper house was made up of Exalted, the lower of mortals, and a motion passed by both chambers was passed to the Scarlet Empress to enter into law. Most of the Realm assumed that her confirming it was a mere formality, but I suspect it was mostly just a tool she used to keep her from being buried in frivolous petitions, and let the Great Houses think they had more say than they did, since she could and did veto motions with near impunity. But if there was enough momentum behind a vote, then it was certainly able to influence her decisions.

“I see. And these… allies you mention.”

I rested my elbows on the rail and looked at the sun, still quite low in the eastern sky. Heading towards us, and rising. Like an omen. “Anathema numbers are up. Sharply. Since we returned from the Imperial Mountain a year ago, the Wyld Hunt is receiving twice as many reports as they used to. And – pertinently – sometimes they’re reports of their previous failures.”

Ayama blinked. “Failures?”

“It’s rare, but it does happen.” I recalled Yurgen’s tales. “A few years ago, a Hunt chasing an Icewalker barbarian was lost to the last. No one knew what happened exactly, but no one heard of him either so the working assumption was that either they killed him and didn’t make it back – or they weakened him to the point that the snowstorms finished the job.”

“Was?”

I nodded. “He’s back. And the shikari of the Wyld Hunt chasing him are not. He has an army… and some say that he’s bringing other anathema together to fight for him. His empire is growing and if he keeps pushing south, he’ll hit satrapies that the Realm has to fight for.”

“And the Linowan and Halta are further away.”

“Exactly.” I gave her a sour look. “I don’t know that that’s who the Linowan are frightened of. But if they are, then they have a good reason for their fear.”

“Now I’m worried too,” she said quietly.

I reached over and gave her shoulder a little shake. “You know what they say: a problem shared is a problem doubled.”

Ayama cracked a smile. “And a friend in need is a friend to be avoided.”

“Come on.” I turned back towards the school buildings. “We have classes. It’s not as if there’s anything else we can do right now?”

“You’re Exalted,” she noted, falling in beside me.

I frowned, glanced sideways at her, then down at my hands. Impishly I let my anima banner flicker to life for a moment. “My gosh! I am! When did that happen?”

The brunette (if she hadn’t shaved her scalp like the rest of us) shook her head slightly. “But you also feel that there is nothing that you can do?”

I looked at her. “In the ancient days, the beings to whom even the Incarnae bowed heard horns of challenges outside their gates. And thus, they marched forth in full panoply of war, expecting some great foe. Some challenger from their own kind, or perhaps some wildling host waging the oldest war, the war of which the Balorian Crusade was but one small campaign. And when they looked around, they saw nothing but ants.”

“And so they asked: ‘who is it who comes here to challenge us?’”

“And those ants, those tiny creatures, beings so miniscule and puny that it was barely within the imagining of the primordial creators that they might even think, much less speak, declared: ‘We are here.’”

“And the great titans stared down at the insects who called themselves mankind. And they laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And when they had had their laugh, it is said that one of them deigned to explain: ‘We made you to pray that we might feast. To offer prayers of worship that we made you, of submission that we might not decide to unmake you, of aversion that we might not trample you unknowing, for you are so small. Know your place!’”

“And men and women drew weapons and declared: ‘We are here to change the order of things.’ And thus did those ancient tyrants learn of death. The true death that never before had touched them. Where now can you find them?”

Ayama looked at me, as did several other students who were converging on the classroom.

“Are you talking about Anathema?” asked Salan, curious.

“No. Something older. Myths that even the spirits have trouble remembering sometimes.”

“I don’t see your point then,” Ayama told me.

“Creation was not humanity’s by birthright,” I explained. “It is ours because we saw an opportunity and took it. Do you see an opportunity to do something about the problem we’ve been discussing?”

“No.”

“Nor do I.” I smiled slightly. “Today. But who knows about tomorrow? In the meantime, learn, grow and become stronger so that when the opportunity comes…”

“How very inspiring,” snarked Lyta as she arrived. “Are you planning on a career in the Deliberative?”

I made a gesture to avert evil. I think if I was ever named a senator then the time would have come to steal a ship and make for the Threshold never to return. They spent months at a time in the Imperial City, listening to each other’s oratory and then being bullied by their elders to represent their House’s interests.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Lyta Exalting as a Abysmal? Well, that'd be just Alina's luck.

But, can she do something about The Bull of the North?
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Ascending Wood

I was finishing cleaning out some guttering on the roof of the Hall of Sextes Jylis when I saw Crane leaving the training room we used. For a moment I was confused – was he expecting me to be there today? Hadn’t I just had a coaching session with him last night?

The masters had decided at the start of the year that while I was ready for many of their lessons, actual coaching on the Earth Dragon style would have to wait until I was a little older. I could hardly protest too strongly without proving their concerns about my maturity correct, so I was stomaching it for now.

Then Lyta emerged and I felt foolish. Naturally, I wasn’t the only one he was providing lessons to. I had noticed that she wasn’t particularly in evidence in the evenings… most likely he was teaching us on alternate nights. It wasn’t as if we sought each other out, and the other students in our dorm were careful not to form any strong attachment to either of us, in case our dislike reached a point that would be problematic for them.

Lest anyone think that Crane had found an excellent way to spend his evenings with impressionable girls, he had been a complete professional during my lessons and I see no reason to believe he was any different with Lyta.

As if some hidden sense told the man that he was being observed, he turned and looked up at me. I raised one hand in salutation.

“What are you doing up there? Showing off?” asked Lyta, her attention drawn by the teacher’s.

I shook my head. “If I fall and hit the ground, the ground will feel it more than I do. That’s not necessarily the case for everyone.” An Air-aspect would land effortlessly on their feet, of course.

Crane laughed. “Well, try not to fall. If you hurt the ground here then someone will need to make it good.” He gestured. “But if you would come down safely, please…” Then, raising his voice. “All first-year students, I have an announcement!”

I descended with slightly exaggerated care and we were quickly joined by our other three peers from the first-year classes.

“There will be something in the nature of a field trip shortly,” Master Crane informed us. “By tradition, the first-year students of the Cloister of Wisdom put on a performance for the monks. A chance to show off what you have learned and so that the teachers here can have outside opinions on your readiness for further classes.”

A performance? I felt a familiar dread. “What sort of performance?”

Lyta hid a smirk that suggested that she knew exactly what I was concerned about.

“It is called the dragon dance,” Crane assured me. “Though the term dance is meant very loosely. To be more accurate it is a melee among you, to show off your martial arts. Those struck down or knocked outside the designated area are eliminated, and the event continues until only one participant remains, the… paramount dragon, you could say.”

I relaxed slightly. That sounded much more tolerable.

“Is there a prize?”

“Yes. Two prizes in fact. The last mortal eliminated and the final victor are both granted a direct coaching session with our dominie. It’s a rare honour, most of her time is invested in running the Cloister and instructing the masters.”

I had seen Repentant Blossom of Winter since her welcoming speech at the start of the second year, but only in passing. The other teachers spoke of the Air-aspected mistress of the Cloister with reverence and I knew enough to recognise that she was a master of Earth Dragon style… and I would assume Air Dragon style as well.

“Those of you considering a career within the Immaculate Order may also be able to catch the eye of future mentors,” continued Crane. “Alas, the Paragons will be absent as they customarily convene with the Mouth of Peace to provide her with spiritual guidance at the end of the year. However, a number of immaculate masters will be present, and grand master Ragara Myrrun is currently resident at the Palace Sublime.”

He wasn’t so unsubtle as to give me a little nod at that, but the meaning was implicit. If he was to be believed then I had the grand master’s attention already. This was a chance to cement his interest… if I wanted it.

The Paragons were the council of five senior monks who led the Immaculate Order and advised the Mouth of Peace, who actually governed it. The politics and administrivia of the latter office were felt to be detrimental to spiritual development and thus it was the Paragons - one for each Immaculate Dragon - who were the most revered leaders.

“Please consider that they will not only be judging your prowess, but also your conduct. No one wishes to be known for training a student who goes on to embarrass them by showing poor judgement in how they apply the lessons.” Master Crane didn’t let his gaze settle on any one person. “We’ll walk to the Palace in three days and there will be a practise session that evening. That way you’ll have at least some chance to get any… unfortunate impulses out of your system before the actual dance of dragons the next day.”

“I assume that normal sparring rules apply?” asked Lyta.

“If you feel that gouging the eyes out of one of your fellow students will get you any sort of favour from the monks at the Sublime Palace then I can only assume that you haven’t been paying attention,” the teacher observed drily. “Alina if you would be so good as to give me a moment or two of your time before you go back to climbing on the roof again?”

“Of course, master.”

Lyta mouthed the words with me, behind Crane’s back, but put an obsequious expression on her face. Dear me, was she jealous that I was getting some of his attention? I wondered if she knew that she wasn’t the only one getting evening lessons from him. Probably, I hadn’t particularly advertised it but nor had I kept it a secret.

“I gather,” Crane murmured, keeping his voice down as we left the Hall, “That you have concerns about General Arada’s campaign in the north-east?”

Had Ayama mentioned it, I wondered. Or had someone been eavesdropping on us? Then again, perhaps Crane just made the same logical deduction as the other Tepet. He did spend a far bit of time with me, more than most of the teachers.

“I can’t claim to be especially well informed,” I admitted, “But it seems a rather large number of my relatives are going to be a very long way from home at a time when the Realm’s resources are being particularly stretched. If something does go wrong…”

He grimaced. “It’s a military campaign. I can’t remember one that has ever avoided having something go wrong on one level or another. But General Arada is an exceptionally able commander, Alina. And he has fought Anathema before.”

I hope that my momentary pause successfully convinced him that I was surprised – by the confirmation if not the mention of them. “Then it’s true? The Haltans have allied themselves with one of the Anathema?”

“It is true,” Crane agreed. “And if they are not defeated quickly, we may face a repeat of the War against Jochim – years of fighting to subdue growing armies pledged to a warlord of uncanny power. There’s a reason Arada was chosen. The entire Realm is looking for him to repeat his former victory. But you needn’t feel he’s fighting alone. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread this around – or if you absolutely must, please keep from telling anyone that you learned this from me – but the Mouth of Peace has asked our Order to send a substantial number of monks to join the Tepet army.”

I frowned in thought. “They’ll be quite some way behind.”

“Alas, yes. But a comparatively small party can travel much faster than four legions, and take a more direct route. Within a week there will be thirty monks, five of them Dragon-Blooded, setting out to support your House’s legions.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Some of them will be watching the dragon’s dance, so please, show them your best. You want them to have a good impression of House Tepet, don’t you?”

I nodded in agreement. “I’ll do my best, master.”

“Your best is very good indeed.” He turned towards another hall. “And now, having informed two halls of the dragon’s dance, I have to deliver it over again and then once more. At times I do wish the dominie would agree to quarter all of you first year students in the same hall.”

“But then who would keep the other halls clean and tidy?” I asked.

“The Hall of Daana’d doesn’t have any first years this year and they seem to be managing. Go finish the gutters, Alina.”

The Palace Sublime looked little like the Cloister in some ways, with two grand towers flanking a lower central keep, but it also had no outer wall and the gardens were similarly diverse. For every monk I saw hard at work maintaining the temple or handling some of the inevitable paperwork, I saw another meditating or training. It wasn’t hard to believe that there was something of an influx at the moment.

The site of the dragon dance was a pentagonal platform of stone. I was fairly sure that it would have been easier to make it square but everything had to be symbolically in fives, I guess. As it was about three feet high, falling off might be quite painful for a mortal.

I don’t want to act as if I think they’re fragile little butterflies, but I wasn’t going to throw one of them off too hard.

Firstly, it would likely be considered unnecessarily cruel – and just plain unnecessary – by the observers. And secondly, I had to live with them for the next few years. In my experience, it’s a lot easier to do that if you’re not a horrible person that no one likes.

I can only assume that Lyta reserved her venom just for myself and maybe a few others or I can’t imagine she’d have stuck it out at Root and Reed School all the way to graduation. She’s stubborn, but not that stubborn.

I grabbed hold of Cathak Karin’s arm and sidestepped, before twisting. She made a pretty good attempt at breaking out before I had her in position, but it wasn’t good enough and I was able to apply enough pressure to force her to her knees. “Give?” I asked, conversationally.

“I… yes,” she admitted through gritted teeth and I released her immediately, stepping away and looking out for anyone else trying to blindside me.

It was just the practise match really; Master Crane was here to supervise but the other monks were politely avoiding us. I imagine that one of the reasons for this little tradition was to let us let off some steam, and the practise match would likely yield some grudges to make the actual dance of dragons tomorrow a little more exciting.

Yes, I ascribe suspicious motives to basically every tradition I come across. It’s surprising how often they bear out.

As it happened, I did have a moment of breathing space, which surprised me as I’d seen Verdant Road finish off an opponent a moment ago. It had been hard to miss as he hadn’t been considerate about throwing one of our Exalted co-students off the platform with considerable force.

When I saw why the Cynis wasn’t trying to take me out, my lips pressed together sharply. Charitably, Salan was having trouble with Lyta and Verdant Road had chosen to help his friend and relative.

Less charitably, they were ganging up two to one – and against a mortal.

If that happened again tomorrow, I doubted their tactic would gain much support. Yes, it was pragmatic. Yes, it was a demonstration of teamwork. But it was also sheer brute force.

The only thing that kept me from piling in and giving Verdant Road someone to fight that he didn’t have a profound advantage over was that Lyta would probably object to my barging in.

On the other hand, there wasn’t really anyone else to fight right now unless I broke into one of the other impromptu duels among the students. Everyone else was mostly paired off.

Did I really want to rescue Lyta, of all people?

It was a serious wrench, but I decided that it would be petty not to. However annoyed she might be, if she wound up out of tomorrow’s performance because those two battered her into submission, she’d resent that even more.

I wove past Cathak Uzuki, who was giving Ayama a run for her money, and headed for the trio.

For the life of me, I don’t know if that hesitation on my part made a difference. I hope not, but as with so many things, it’s impossible to say.

Salan tried for a solid hit to Lyta’s face and her arm snapped up, catching his fist and yanking him away. I almost applauded the move, but that wasn’t all that was happening.

Golden light sprang up around Lyta, first a glittering halo, then a swelling aura. In between two heartbeats, a brand blazoned itself upon the girl’s brow. And the anima coalesced into the form of a tiger, its great paws following her hands as they continued their arc.

Salan’s arm reached full extension and kept going. The rest of him didn’t, and his shoulder disintegrated.

The good news was that he probably wasn’t in very much pain. The bad news was that the reason was that Lyta followed ripping his arm off immediately by driving her other hand into his ribs and ripping his heart out.

The boy didn’t scream, he barely had time and I think his last moments must have been utter shock. But Verdant Road did plenty of screaming for him and his anima banner roared to life, flames so ferocious that I veered aside from them.

The Fire-aspect lunged at Lyta, trying to grapple her and pin her in place. It was a brave move and a tactically wise move – his anima banner would burn her and if she was immobilised them someone else might be able to get in a killing blow. Whether he was actually thinking that, I have no idea. Perhaps he was maddened by rage at Salan’s death, perhaps he had visions of being a hero.

It didn’t matter, because Lyta reversed his attempt to seize hold of her and heaved him up above her head before bringing him savagely down on her shoulder, ignoring the flames that licked at her head and clothes.

There was a brutal cracking noise as the Terrestrial Exalted’s spine snapped in several places… but that apparently was insufficient for Lyta and she raised Verdant Road again before bringing him down onto the stone fighting platform.

Head first.

The stone survived, but his skull didn’t.

There were shouts, screams. Just about all of those on the stage with me were basically children. Fifteen or sixteen, never really exposed to real violence.

In no sense for the visceral revelation that a Celestial Exalt could dismantle a Terrestrial Exalt as easily as the Dragon-Blood could a mortal.

“Get away from her,” someone shouted authoritatively. For a moment I thought it was Crane, but when I looked around for him, our teacher was not in evidence

Some of the students obeyed that order but others froze.

I was neither sheep nor goat. I went for her.

It would take time for the monks to respond and time for the other students to flee. The way that we had been given space earlier was now biting us firmly in the posterior – only a handful of the Palace Sublime’s defenders were actually in a position to do anything.

Lyta saw me coming and she grinned wildly. “Look down on me now!” she shrieked and went for me with hands like tiger claws.

The essence of a Solar Exalt runs deep and strong. Meeting it head on, even if I was of a higher essence tier, would be foolhardy I thought. Technique would have to serve in the place of raw power.

The older girl wasn’t just Exalted, she was in its first rush. She had more power than she knew what to do with. Once the adrenaline rush was over, she’d be more manageable, but right now…

Her first kick barely missed staving in my ribs as she turned the clawing strikes of her hands into feints… and then leapt up and somersaulted, tearing away one shoulder of my robe and leaving a trail of blood behind it.

Shallow, yes. I closed the wound with barely a thought. But she had first blood.

When she came down, I was on her. I met her next attack with essence running through my arms. Like dragon scales my bunched forearms defected hers and kept those deadly hands away from me.

I hopped up into a crane kick that caught her beneath the ribs and she doubled up.

For a brief moment I thought that I had my opening.

The instant my foot touched the stone again, I went low, aiming to come up inside her defences, use my shorter limbs to my advantage. Given a few moments, dozens of Immaculate monks would arrive and some of them would be experienced monks, perhaps even Shikari trained to take golden Anathema down.

But she wasn’t reeling and unready.

When I came within her reach, I was struck first by her smirk and triumphant eyes. And then I was hurled up and had the briefest of instants to fortify myself before I found myself rushing down onto the cold, hard stones of the platform.

I was probably out of the fight for less than a minute, for most of which I had little to no idea what was going on. It took several seconds to remember that I had arms and legs, much less how to move them.

When I finally dragged a breath into my lungs, I started clawing my way out of the shattered stones where I had struck them.

Something had landed on me. I didn’t throw it aside only because when my hands secured a grip, I realised it was someone, not something.

Wiping the back of my hand across my eyes I blinked them open and found myself staring into the dead, glassy eyes of Tepet Berel Ayama.

There was the sound of a wracking sob and only when it was repeated was I aware it came from my own lips.

“You’re not dead?”

I saw Lyta standing almost above me, Uzuki’s arm in one hand, her Caste mark blazing ominously on her brow. The rest of Uzuki was crawling away backwards, pushing away with her legs as she used her remaining arm to try to pinch closed the wound that was spurting blood out of the stump of her left arm. Her face was stained as much by tears as it was blood.

“Get away!” The woman who leapt onto the platform covered it in a single swooping stride. She held a chakram in each hand but rather than throwing them, she slashed at Lyta with them as if they were fighting daggers, driving the newly Exalted Solar back.

I tried to get my feet under me but could only manage my knees.

The platform around me was a gory mess, littered by bodies. Some were still alive but I couldn’t guess at how many.

Probably not as many as it seemed at first. Too many. The monks must have seen Lyta’s anima banner spring to life and recognised it for what it was – hells, I imagine they saw it at the Cloister of Wisdom, miles away.

But while they had all, bravely and dutifully, rushed towards the terrible threat that had appeared in the heart of their power, they were arriving in ones and twos, not en masse in the sort of numbers that would have stopped her.

Still, that reprieve couldn’t last forever.

Lyta blocked the chakram sweeps with her forearms, the razor-sharp jade-steel failing to sink more than the tiniest fraction of an inch into her. Then she crane-kicked and as the Immaculate monk doubled up, I realised that the Solar was copying what I had done to her.

The only difference was that her target wasn’t waiting for it and when Lyta rose up inside the woman’s guard she did so with her fingers like claws ripping up beneath the ribs.

The Immaculate was almost torn in two, eviscerated on the spot. Her anima banner, only barely lit up as she had likely been managing her essence carefully in the expectation of a long fight to wear Lyta down, died with her.

“How does it feel, Alina?” Lyta wiped the blood off her hands on what was left of the Immaculate’s robe. “To have me looking down on you at last?”

I stared up at her, gathering my strength, my wits, whatever I could. “You’ve always looked down on me. You’re taller than I am!”

I’m not sure what she expected but that wasn’t it.

I had a moment. I had, as I had told Ayama not that long ago, an opportunity.

I slammed my forehead down on the stone platform beneath me, right before the irate Lyta kicked my head off of me.

The Palace Sublime was a manse, of course. While I wasn’t actually within it, the essence flows converging around it. Even outside the manse, the dragonlines were larger and more thickly clustered than they would have been elsewhere.

In another life I could have done this anywhere. Right now, I wanted every advantage I could have. I hadn’t tried this since my rebirth. For most of that time, I think the monks were right and it would have crippled me.

But right now, it was one of the few cards I had. My essence control was pretty damn good when I got to the Cloister and I’d spent more than a year working on it since I mastered the enlightenment charms again.

I came up like a runner from a crouch and the essence of the stones came with me, my skin covered by it.

I was a bit distracted to recall that what I was doing demanded essence control of at least the fifth mortal plateau. It was probably a good thing that I was no longer of two minds about Lyta.

The bitch was going down. It was just a question of whether I survived it or not.

The Perfection of Earth Body is the highest and most demanding technique of the Earth Dragon style. My battered body reinforced with essence drawn directly from the element itself (and it had brought a fair bit of actual earth with it), I ploughed into Lyta and carried her with me as plunged off the s

Side of the arena platform without breaking stride.

She screamed like a wildcat, clawing at my back with similar ferocity but even those terrible raking hands could barely scratch me through the essence formed about me.

I reckon she just about realised that and was going to change tactics when I reached what I was aiming for.

Perhaps thirty yards from the site for the dance of the dragons, a rough and largely unshaped stone menhir rose up out of the garden. It was easily twice my height and I have no idea why it was there. Perhaps it was to be a meditation focus or perhaps there was some point to it in the local geomancy.

Either way, it was big enough and solid enough to stop me and Lyta was caught quite literally between a rock and a hard-place.

I think I may have cracked her hip with the impact. More importantly it straightened her out, her shaven head snapping back and almost cracking against the heavy stone.

I couldn’t take too much more of a battering, that was a fact. But for all the supernatural agility she had shown, I was fairly sure she wasn’t going to be able to take too many hits either.

Almost everything I’d seen from her so far was aggression. I needed her on the defensive.

I locked one hand on her face and smashed her head back against the menhir, visibly cracking it with the impact.

She bunched her legs up to try to brace herself to kick me away, but I wheeled, spinning her around as I clung to the stone with bleeding fingernails and let centrifugal force do its job. My hand lost its grip on her head right before she found herself butting heads with the heavy stone for the third time in as many seconds.

That had to rattle her cage.

I delivered a heavy kick against her hip as she tried to shake it off, aiming for the same one that had taken the worst of the initial collision. There was a satisfying shriek from the girl and she scrabbled for a foothold to get her other leg under her.

I dropped to my own knees, one hand grabbing hold of that leg above the knee and the other below it. One heave and the joint was bent in a manner not intended by the designer of the human knee.

“No!” Her voice was almost breaking. “You can’t beat me!”

I bounced up on my feet again, pretending a lightness I didn’t really feel. It was still possible that she’d bounce back herself.

I didn’t mean to give her time. Jumping up, I kicked off the menhir’s side, giving more force to the spin that connected my foot to her temple.

She sprawled, inelegantly onto the ground. “Why you!?”

It was a child’s cry, that of someone who did not understand.

A ‘plaint that a part of me ached to answer and explain to.

I hardened my heart and kicked Lyta over, onto her face. One hand on her shoulder, one around onto her jaw. I didn’t quite get the grip right and she bit down on one finger, drawing blood.

Her arms flexed, forcing her up and back, towards me. Some last reflex or perhaps a strategy that I didn’t give a chance to play out.

I held her shoulder still and yanked her head around until she was looking right at me.

“Why… always… you…?”

The golden anima guttered and died. Sesus Lyta’s eyes dimmed. They looked terribly like Ayama’s.

Monks had been rushing towards us for the entirety of my fight and now, as if time had slowed down to allow it, they crowded around us, staring at Lyta’s broken body. I staggered, punch-drunk, back to the arena floor and scrambled back onto it, succeeding only on the second time.

The Perfection of Earth Body was almost all that was keeping me upright but with clumsy fingers I unknotted my belt, dropped to one knee next to Uzuki and used it to tourniquet her arm.

No one else had done anything to help her, I thought rather self-righteously with my last shred of indignation before I passed out again.

Dreams of red blood and golden light haunted me. Faces remembered, friends and foes, living and dead.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself in an unfamiliar dormitory, laid out on a bamboo mat.

“Don’t move too quickly.”

I blinked and turned my head and saw a monk kneeling next to me. She half-turned her head and addressed someone else. “Please inform the masters that Alina has woken.”

I heard footsteps departing as I gingerly tested my ability to move. Everything seemed more or less where it should be, rather to my relief. There was an ache that warned me that I had pushed myself harder than was wise. Exalted or not, I was still flesh and bone.

“I’m sure you have questions…”

I raised one hand. “Uzuki?”

She nodded patiently. “Cathak Uzuki is in a stable condition.”

“Ayama?”

She frowned slightly. “Tepet Berel Ayama is among those who gave their lives.”

“Gave?” Dammit, I had failed them.

The monk nodded gravely. “The majority of the students fled when ordered to. The two you name saw you fall and went back for you.”

The words were like poison to me. A further failure then. I had, whatever my intentions, drawn them into Lyta’s grasp.

A warm hand settled on my shoulder and I realised I was covered by only a light blanket. “Your life is their victory, just as the lives of many of your classmates is yours. Do not diminish the sacrifice your friends made; or mar their memory with shame in place of honest grief.”

The footsteps from earlier returned, with some haste. “The masters wish to speak with her.”

The monk rose smoothly to her feet. “I recommend against the student moving from her bed for another day.”

When I looked up, I saw that the messenger was a young monk, swarthy skin paler across the crown of his head, likely indicating that he had only recently shaved his head and taken his oaths. “The masters are on their way here,” he reported.

That got a sigh. “Fetch a robe for her then.” She turned back to me. “I will help you to sit up. Try to remain still. You strained yourself severely and the temple of your body requires serenity to recover itself.”

That agreed with my own obedience and I nodded slightly, lying back until the monk had her arms around me, levering me up and then stacking three rolled mats behind me as support. She also helped slip my arms onto a robe and belted it loosely around me.

Just as the blanket was drawn up over my lap, the door slid open to admit a further three monks. Two I recognised – no, three. Crane {who had helped the other students escape} and Repentant Blossom of Winter; and the third, who I had never been so close to, was the much-anticipated Immaculate Grand Master: Ragara Myrrun.

He was craggy stone in motion, each movement precisely and perfectly calculated. For a moment I thought he was using Perfection of the Earth Body himself and wondered why he felt that this meeting required it, but then realised that his essence and aspect were simply so advanced that it was his natural form.

“Smaller than I had thought,” he observed.

Crane {who had helped the other students escape}, swept a measuring gaze across me. “Tepet Demarol Alina,” he addressed me formally. “I trust that your pains are fading.”

I felt the flickering edges of a headache. “Some of them.”

“Yes.” Repentant Blossom of Winter’s expression was stern. I made a mental note never to refer to her as RBW. My friend Radiant Bright Wing had been amused by that shorthand for herself, also answering to ‘featherhead’. I did not think that the dominie who shared her initials would be so casual. “You have faced a challenge that you never should have come close to,” she reminded me. “You have… surpassed it.” And then her eyes narrowed further. “Though how you have done so rouses some questions.”

“I would imagine so.”

Dropping to one knee beside me, Crane {who had helped the other students escape}, looked me in my eyes. “All the students were ordered to get clear. First-year students had no business confronting one of the Anathema. Were you thirsty to prove yourself against her?”

There was a compulsion behind his words, a temptation to say yes. To admit that I hated Lyta, that I had felt vindication at her fall from grace and at the opportunity to…

What the hell was this? Those were not my feelings!

I had disliked her. Feared what I suspected might be her fate!

But at the end… I had pitied her.

There were others worthy of my hatred. A child who aspired to greatness and was chosen for it at a terrible time was not one of them. I knew then, as I met his green eyes and saw the starlight within them, that more than anything about Lyta’s death, I regretted that I had not been able to steer her away from the path that had led to her death, to the path that in another life had sent her out into the world she had believed against her.

When she could have been so much more.

There was a faction, I recalled, among the Sidereal Exalted who had opposed bringing down the god-kings of old and thought that they could be steered and manipulated. Who saw the return of the Solar Exalted as young and malleable pawns they could direct against their rivals who dominated the Five-Score Fellowship and the Bureau of Destiny.

Crane {who had helped the other students escape}’s presence and attention to Lyta had not been a coincidence.

And he had not helped the other students escape.

“No,” I told him - told them - honestly. “We needed time. For the others to get clear, for monks to arrive in sufficient numbers to contain and bring her down.” And then a rawer, more painful admission. “I rather overestimated my ability to buy that time.”

“Two of your classmates, children who you shared a pilgrimage with, paid the price for that choice.” Repentant Blossom of Winter hid her hands within the sleeves of her robe. “One is dead, the other crippled for life.”

“I know.” My voice twisted and shook with the ache of that. “I know.”

“You know the Earth Dragon style.” Myrrun’s voice was cool and dispassionate. “I do not recall that first year students are instructed… so at best you should know only the most basic lessons but you not only used it, you used one of its most difficult techniques.”

“Indeed.” There was a frozen chill to the dominie’s voice. “You know such lessons are prohibited until your essence was fully prepared, and that we had judged you not ready. How did you, at your age, know any charms of that style - much less its paramount feat?”

“Master Crane taught me.” I saw the man’s green eyes widen in shock and then narrow in anger as he realised what I was doing. “He was giving me private lessons; on the evenings he wasn’t tutoring Lyta.”

Admit the crime, pass the blame to someone else, tie them to another matter of more import and let their suspicions do the rest. That sort of social transaction came naturally after years of wrangling powerful Exalted to fight the actual enemies, not each other, and occasionally to also do their paperwork.

Ragara Myrrun’s hand fell upon the shoulder of the kneeling instructor and {/Creation.disconnect}

{Creation.reconnect/} the Immaculate Grand Master turned to the door. “No one has seen your Master Crane since the anathema appeared,” he informed me as he turned to the door. “We will require an accounting of all of his lessons.”

And then he was gone, smoothly but with the gathering force of an avalanche, leaving me alone with Repentant Blossom of Winter and the monk who had tended to me. I should probably find out her name at some point. If nothing else, so I could thank her.

The aged Air-aspect eyed me for a moment and then sat down in a lotus position in front of me. “Relax child.”

“I think I might break something if I do.”

“I know the feeling. I broke through to the fourth mortal plateau of essence cultivation in battle a renegade Salt God,” she confided. Salt’s importance in preserving food, restraining ghosts and as an alchemical reagent gave the spirits responsible for any source considerable leverage, which they sometimes abused. “It remains among the most painful of my memories. To which I must now add another.”

I bit my lip.

“As do you.” She shook her head slowly. “When I was appointed as dominie, my predecessor warned me that while as a teacher I might hope to find the next Ragara Myrrun, such a pupil is a double-edged blade.”

I pulled a face. “I did the right thing but in all the wrong ways.”

“I see you lack false modesty,” the monk attending me noted in mild reproof.

Repentant Blossom of Winter shrugged. “She casts him in the shade, does she not? We wouldn’t usually consider teaching the beginning of an Immaculate style to someone younger than fifteen and Alina is close to mastery when she is still short of that. Not to mention that slaying… the anathema… has brought her to imperial attention for the second time.”

“The attention does not surprise me given where this has happened,” the monk noted drily. “But the second time?”

“That I couldn’t say.” Phaestis, probably. But how would Repentant Blossom of Winter know of that? I gave the monk a questioning look, wondering why she was being so informal with the domine. “I am setting a rather bad example.”

“The example of those who chose to follow you into this battle is likely to be that of those who think they can master the Immaculate Arts as easily.” The monk paused. “Dead or crippled. I do not think you would appreciate less than blunt honesty.”

“You seem to know me well, already.”

She dipped her head gracefully. “Sweet Memory. The good dominie was my abbot before she was charged with the responsibility for the Cloister. And you require no introduction.”

“I’m becoming notorious.” I turned back to Repentant Blossom of Winter. “I take it that sorcery was used to communicate with the capital about Lyta’s… action.”

“Yes, and we have likewise received a response.” She frowned. “I must maintain discipline within the Cloister and it will be harder when the students know that you not only avenged their brethren but have also been rewarded by her Scarlet Majesty for doing so.” The old woman drew herself up. “Tepet Demarol Alina, I am charged by direct instruction of the Scarlet Empress to inform you that for your valour in defending the Palace Sublime from an Anathema, she offers you a boon of your choosing.”

That seemed… excessive. “It’s a trap, isn’t it?”

Sweet Memory laughed. “Are you sure you’re Earth-aspected? They are usually more deliberate, but you think like quicksilver.”

“I was raised in a political household.” Why didn’t meet you in my last life, Sweet Memory? An immaculate with this sort of humour would have been a fine ally. Did Lyta kill you? “If I ask too little then I show I am ignorant, but ask too much and I am ambitious.”

“You could also hold that boon for a later date,” suggested Repentant Blossom of Winter. “The political value would be immense.”

“And in the hands of a bastard child of a minor household it would make me a target. No, this is a hot potato I don’t want to cling to.” I shook my head. “And better it be discharged somehow without having every student at the Cloister looking for Anathema to slay.”

“That is inelegantly put but not in accurate,” she allowed. “Do you have something in mind? You could request a manse and try to found your own household, or ask that she assign you a tutor to pursue the Immaculate martial arts if that calls to you as much as it seems.”

“A little too public,” I pointed out. “And it would be best, perhaps if I was out of sight for a while.”

Sweet Memory shook her head. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

“Since so many are dead and injured, I imagine that a number of students will need a leave of absence to recuperate – to the summer at least. Perhaps longer?”

The dominie nodded. “Your friend Uzuki may need a year or more and she will find it… difficult to advance in some fields without her arm. A shame – if she were Exalted her family might be willing to invest in an artifact to make good her loss. Still, she is one of my students and I will welcome her back to learn all that she may.”

“A year lost out of seven.” I winced. That wasn’t quite as bad as the lost limb but it would also hurt her.

“I am not quite so severe. Those who cannot return at the end of the summer will be allowed to extend their time at the Cloister to compensate. The maximum period of tuition is seven years and those unable to attend are clearly not in tuition. I would imagine that you will be on your feet again in days and fully recovered within a month though. Exaltation is hardly without benefits.”

“While I might be able to, would it be wise? I don’t expect the same grace from you since my fitness will not actually be as impaired as Uzuki’s, but perhaps an extended recovery out of the view of my peers would make my example less desirable?”

She considered that. “A point, yes. It would be harsh for you to lose months of lessons, but we may count that as a due punishment for the illicit lessons you received from Crane. Really, since you are so clever now, I must wonder how he deceived you.”

I made a face. “A lesson I must learn more fully.”

“So, you will return home for a while?” asked Sweet Memory.

I shook my head slowly. “No.” Ayama was dead, but there were other Tepet in danger. And if I had the freedom...

“Then where?”

“I believe that some of my relatives are taking a journey to see the forests of the north-east,” I said lightly. “Might you by any chance know anyone who is going in that direction? I have a sudden desire to join their expedition.”

The Imperial City didn’t look quite as dramatic from the docks as it does when you approach from the sky, but on the other hand, you get a full dose of the sound and smell.

On balance, the aerial approach is probably preferable. And I’m not saying that because I was horribly sea-sick on the galley that brought us north along the coast from the Palace Sublime. Even in my last life I wasn’t much of a sailor.

Airships were another matter, for some reason. I’d built a Haslanti-style one and it did good work even though it was later handed down to some of my children when it proved simply too slow to respond to problems affecting more far flung allies and too small to carry a significant force of reinforcements.

The galley was small and lightly built, it more or less had to be so that the crew could row it quickly enough. Since all I had to do during the voyage was rest and let my essence heal, I was feeling much better in some respects…

And since emptying my stomach of most of what went into it had been a theme, I was feeling rather worse in other ways.

“If it’s any consolation, the ship we’re changing to is larger and handles the waves much better,” offered Sweet Memory as she helped me off the galley and onto the dock.

“It helps, but not as much as being off that… I won’t even call it a tub, a tub would be sturdier,” I told her – quietly enough that the crew behind us probably wouldn’t hear. There was no need to be harsh towards them, they were doing their best with the tools they were given.

More than twenty monks were with us despite the casualties Lyta had caused. Not everyone who’d fought her were dead, and two of those not coming with us had been comparative rookies so horrified at the carnage caused that they’d backed out.

You had to see a Solar at work to really know what you were dealing with. There was a reason that they brought down the Primordials and then ruled Creation for thousands of years. I have to give points to the Dragon-Blooded who brought them down, even if they were being masterminded by others for a lot of it. It took enormous courage to take on hundreds of Celestial Exalted, powerful enough individually to dictate commands to much of even the celestial pantheon.

And I don’t just say that because I was a Dragon-Blood. I was… atypical of the breed. Whether that’s good or bad… you be the judge.

The feel of solid stone beneath my feet was a great relief and the mess of dock workers parted without hesitation at the sight of two dozen Immaculate monks. And myself, although I doubt that they could tell the difference. I was still wearing the hemp robe I’d used at the Cloister, identical to that of a first coil monk, the only difference being my bracers.

The only ones who dared to stand before us were the guards at the entrance to the dock we were headed for. The navy didn’t let just anyone near some of their ships and this was one of them – a courier vessel of a kind not made since the days of the Dragon-Blooded Shogunate – the government of the Realm in the interim between the overthrow of the Solars and the Scarlet Empress’ rise to power after the Great Contagion and the Balorian Crusade.

About sixty feet long, and a quarter the width, the ship had a mast and sail but primarily it relied on a pair of essence engines that used jets of water to propel it through the ocean and a staggering – by current standards – twenty miles an hour.

Our numbers were rather more than would usually be recommended for the ship, and certainly in no sense large enough for the formation of legion soldiers that stood at parade rest near the gangway down to the deck. A full talon of the Imperial Force, heavily armoured with essence-driven armour marking out those who were Exalted.

No, I don’t mean the jade-steel worn by most Exalted. This was the sophisticated artifact war gear of the first age, that could have quite a variety of inbuilt functions from flight to barriers of pure essence. Vanishingly rare and only the most trusted of the Scarlet Dynasty were ever assigned it. The mortals that made up most of the talon were less well-equipped but they were comparable, many of them monks themselves. And given the role of the Imperial Force, they were trained in taking down even Exalted.

Essentially, we were outnumbered five to one by a force even more elite that the supposedly tide-turning force of monks I was with. If they were here to detain us, it was enough that any sane person would surrender. Hopefully that wasn’t the case.

“The Empress can’t be sending them with us,” Sweet Memory noted in surprise. “But I haven’t seen so many of them in one place before.”

The officer leading this force stepped forwards as we approached, addressing Sweet Memory directly: “Are you Tepet Demarol Alina?”

She shook her head and gestured for me to step forwards. “No, talonlord. This is who you are looking for.”

I guess that made Sweet Memory sane. Good to know.

The Dragon-Blood was too well trained to drop his jaw as I stepped forwards, well aware of how unimpressive I must look. “This… child is a shikari?”

It was an archaic word for hunter, perhaps more exactly translated as harrier. Used, in the current day, for members of the Wyld Hunt.

“This child,” Sweet Memory assured him quietly, “Brought down an Anathema with her bare hands. After four of our number, two of them Exalted, were killed or crippled.”

He nodded and turned his head to glower at me through his helmet. “Then you should have a token.”

I nodded and opened my satchel. Besides my tools and a spare robe there wasn’t much in there, but there was an amulet that Repentant Blossom of Winter had given me for this purpose. A five-headed dragon, because… well, symbolism, I suppose?

The officer produced a second amulet and held it next to mine, comparing the two until he was sure that they were identical. “I see,” he confirmed, putting his own away.

“Are you supposed to take this?” I asked, still holding mine out.

He shook his head. “My orders are only to provide you with a package and a letter.” The man waved his hand and one of the dragon-armoured Exalted stepped forwards, carrying a wooden casket about a foot across. Meanwhile the officer produced a scroll from a bag at his side.

I accepted the letter first and it had my lawful mother’s seal on it. Somehow, I doubt she had the pull to have a hundred and twenty-five of the Imperial Force deliver it, so my guess was that whoever had received it here had somehow had it sent with the package.

Dropping it into my bag, I looked next at the casket. It was inconveniently large really. “Do you have any objections to my opening this?”

The man shook his head and provided me with a key obviously intended for the casket’s lock. “What you do with it is not my concern, Tepet.”

I honestly don’t think he was being disrespectful in just using my house’s name. Dealing with children wasn’t exactly in his job description.

Kneeling, I unlocked the casket and flipped the lid back.

Despite its size, the only thing in it was a comparatively small leather bag and some padding. I guess the casket was mainly to make the contents bulkier so that no one could rush off with it. I reached in, tugged the drawstring of the bag and looked inside.

Yeah, that was what I’d asked for. From the guards, I guessed I had overreached a little. But I’d received it, so maybe I was just being given the rope to hang myself. I’d have to find out.

“Thank you,” I told him sincerely and closed the little bag, dropping it into my satchel.

The Exalt who’d been carrying the casket stared at me. “You should be more careful with that.”

I shrugged. “We’re going aboard a first age ship and we’ll be at sea in cramped quarters for the next few days. It’s all I can do.”

“Not our concern,” the talonlord declared firmly – more to his subordinate to myself – and reached up, pumping his arm above his head in a signal to the force.

The soldiers fell in behind him and they marched without another word, leaving the dock and us behind.

“What could be so valuable that it needs the Imperial Force to deliver it?” muttered one of the monks.

“Nothing we should talk about here,” Sweet Memory told him and stepped to the gangway. “Captain, permission to board?”

“Granted,” the woman who had been watching us from the stern of the ship. “We’re only waiting for you.”

One at a time we filed down the gangway onto the vessel and two crewmen hauled it aboard behind us.

“Please spend as much time as you can in the cabin,” the captain warned. “We’re overloaded with so many of you and there’s not much room for the crew to work as it is.”

“Of course, captain. We are used to austere conditions,” Sweet Memory assured her.

“Austere in a monastery is one thing,” we were warned. “A single cramped cabin that’s heaving around on the ocean is another. We’ll get you there as soon as we can, but it’s a three-day voyage to the mouth of the Yanaze.”

Only three days to cross the Inland Sea. It was one of the busiest pieces of water in the world, when a week and a half was more normal. I’d been faster, but it was still impressive.

Sweet Memory patted me on the shoulder and pushed me towards the cabin. “Captain, I’d appreciate a bucket for our youngest companion.”

The old woman sighed heavily. “Seasick? I hope you haven’t eaten heavily.”

I shook my head and went inside. As tempting as it was to try to begin work with the contents of the bag, there wasn’t room here and I doubted the ship would be stable enough on the open sea. Instead I cracked the seal on the letter and opened it.

Normal greetings, congratulations on bringing honour to House Tepet and to the Demarol Household in particular… ah yes, ‘looking forward to discussing your lessons in the martial arts and comparing our prowess’.

Someone was suddenly unhappy that I had blown her slow progress towards Air Dragon style right out of the water. Fifty years of progress for her compared to what she must have thought was only that many weeks. That had to sting…

At the mouth of the mighty Yanaze, we transferred to a river barge. Having subsisted on a thin broth that was all I could keep down, I was deeply glad that the river waters were a little tamer than the open ocean, for all the massive size of the estuary.

We couldn’t go ashore here. The city of Lookshy sits at the southern shore of the Yanaze’s mouth and they were no friends to the Realm, claiming that the Scarlet Empress was an illegitimate successor to the Shogunate of old. There had been wars fought over the matter, wars that had decided nothing save that Lookshy and what had once been the Seventh Legion of the Shogunate could punch well above their weight; and that the price of subduing them would be intolerable.

Part of their advantage was their ability to close the river to trade.

The Yanaze is vast and I couldn’t even see Lookshy from where we embarked on the barge. Every major river in the East flows into it, and almost all trade in the near east is either across those rivers or must at least cross one of them. In the days of the Old Realm, the River Province was the heartland of the Eastern Threshold, second only to the Blessed Isle in wealth and population. That had not changed, even if both were sadly diminished.

We had more space on the barge, at least. While most shipping on the Yanaze was ocean-going vessels that relied on sail, a handful of First Age tugs still pulled chains of barges up the river and the major tributaries. They charged a fat fee, but given the costs of operating them, it was more than fair.

On the smoother water of the river, I could at last work with my tools and after crafting the most important thing – a big fat bacon sandwich – in the barge’s galley, I laid claim to a corner of the deck and began work.

“Curiosity overwhelms me,” Sweet Memory observed as she saw me applying a pencil-sized burner to a crucible I held in my other hand. (Please do not try this at home, or unless you’re Exalted.) “Are you going to set the barge on fire?”

“I can’t claim to be an astrologer, but I’m not planning to.”

“I’m so glad. That would impact on our travel plans somewhat. So, what are you doing?”

“Well, now that I’ve finished my sandwich, I’m going to turn this into wire, and then into thread.”

She shook her head. “That was cruel to the rest of us, you know.” The oaths of Immaculate Monks include dietary regulation, and red meat is one of the first things prohibited (along with narcotics and intoxicants). That alone was more of a deterrent to me than the formal process of entering the Immaculate Order – which involves kneeling in a certain courtyard of the Imperial City’s temple district until the Paragon of Sextes Jylis judges you sufficiently humble, then a pilgrimage on foot from the city to the Palace Sublime, during which you must subsist by begging. Both of these are particularly gruelling for those wellborn or Exalted, who often have little experience of privation.

While I don’t particularly consider myself prideful, begging rather than earning my keep might come hard to me. And the degree of privation required for the Paragon to see me as suitably humbled might be extensive. But the biggest barrier remained the lack of meat. The fact I was willing to endure that rule for seven years at the Cloister should tell you how much I had wanted the opportunity to regain my former access to the Earth Dragon style.

“Take pride in your privation,” I told Sweet Memory, shaking the crucible slightly to help the heat spread through the metal inside it. “Surely your enlightenment cannot be undermined by the sweet smell of smoked bacon.”

“Unnecessary testing of one’s enlightenment is a sin of pride.” Her lips quirked as she lectured me. “Is that what was in the casket?”

There was no point to keeping it secret, since it hardly took a genius to guess that. “Yes, four ounces of starmetal.”

The monk frowned. “And that required a guard force that would have been excessive to storm a major manse?”

“I think her Scarlet Majesty would have preferred that I ask for her personal warstrider.” Actually, I was entirely sure that she would, since she hadn’t used the red jade Royal Warstrider once in the four hundred and sixty-three years she’d owned it. So far as I knew, it should still be in storage in her Winter Palace. By reputation it was a fantastic war machine, rivalling those once crafted for the use of Solar Exalted.

One of my comrades had borrowed it at one point, and unfortunately driven the animating spirit completely insane. Apparently, the spirit had been set to copy every thought and memory of the pilot, which would then be replicated upon a mirroring device in a certain office in heaven for evaluation. If the Empress had accepted the gift at face value then one of the oldest Sidereal Exalted would have had the secrets to entering and using the Imperial Manse at his disposal.

Whether the spirit had been unstable after centuries of not even being unpacked or the Eclipse Caste Solar who used it was just that alt-sane was a subject for much light-hearted debate, but after tearing apart an invasion flotilla of shipwrecks that rose from the ocean floor and attempted to storm Arjuf, the warstrider had summarily ejected the man and attempted to fly high enough to board the Unconquered Sun’s chariot as it made its daily transit over Creation. That had ended about as well as you might imagine.

I never found out what the Sidereal in question made of it, because he’d died in the interim and the mirroring device had been lost in the bureaucratic shuffle of reassigning his duties.

Sweet Memory shook her head at that. “If you’re feeling better, please join us for practise. I’d feel better if you had some proper lessons in Earth Dragon style. None of us are masters but so far as I’m aware, nor was Crane. It was close to a miracle that you used it successfully against the Anathema. Let’s not rely on such good fortune in the future.”

It was good advice and I nodded. “I’ll finish this and then join you once the metal has cooled. I’d rather not leave it unattended before that stage.”

“I’m sure the barge crew will appreciate that,” Sweet Memory assured me, looking at the wooden deck beneath us. She lowered her voice. “We’ve received some news from the Linowan.”

I looked up. “How bad is it?”

She took a deep breath. “The initial reports were that two golden Anathema had left the west and were helping the Haltans over-run the Linowan’s southern allies.”

Since the Haltan kingdom lay to the north of the Linowan, that left our allies pincered. Of course, General Arada’s legions were marching northwards from Greyfalls so they in turn would be pincering this threat. “And now?”

“We now believe there to be at least four Anathema, and one of them has been summoning demons. There are reports that the sorcerer is guarded by an animated corpse who wields a fiery lance of brass, so they may also be a necromancer in play.”

I closed my eyes in thought. I do not summon demons myself, for various reasons, but it is so common a practise among sorcerers that I have had little choice but to swallow my distaste. And I have sent no small number back to Malfeas.

It would be very ill-advised to let Sweet Memory know that I had a tenth the knowledge of demons that I had built up, but that description was familiar to me. The lance itself was the preferred form of the demon Gervesin, who was of the Second Circle. It possessed its wielders, and their mere death was not enough to end their enthrallment.

And since the sorceries accessible to Terrestrial Exalted did not generally extend to banishment of demons of the Second or Third Circle, any more than it did to summoning them. Which would require ‘slaying’ Gervesin (and not merely the corpse that carried him) such that he was forced to reform within Malfeas.

Not a trivial task.

“Brass is most commonly a sign of demons,” I said out loud. “I don’t claim to know much of anything about necromancy, but it could be that the corpse is possessed in some respect.”

Samea of the Blackwater Tribe, I thought. A sorceress of the Zenith Caste, and one of the few Solar Exalted in this day and age who had escaped the Wyld Hunt even longer than Yurgen. She was his right hand, and had bargained with demons for lost knowledge of the celestial sorceries that could call and bind a Second Circle demon. Most demons would share that lore, even if they would ask a price for the trade. After all, it served their masters well to have their agents in Creation, even should they be for the most part bound to the whim of a summoner.

It was truly shocking how few sorcerers thought to include such terms as ‘don’t sneak off and start an infernal cult while I’m sleeping’ in their bindings. I suspected that for many Sorcerers, common sense was what they had sacrificed at their initiation.

Sweet Memory spread her hands. “Perhaps so. But this is not simply a Wyld Hunt on a grand scale. Even one Anathema is a terrible threat, as you have seen. An entrenched Anathema who has been given time to grow into that power… there we have such threats as Jochim, who was fought for seven years before he was slain. Multiple such Anathema…”

I wondered what she’d think of my extended circle – the Solars, the Lunars, a Green Sun Princess who had broken the bonds of Malfeas, myself and my host of children. We were everything she had been raised to fear…

Dammit, I missed those beautiful bastards. Mostly because they were so damn good at dodging.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Poor Ayama. :(
Poor Lyta. She was just a pawn to Crane. Damned Sidereals.

And, Crane is now going to look harder at Alina's Fate.
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